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Culture As Identity: An Anthropologist's View

Anthony P. Cohen
CULTURE AS IDENTITY. It is a title which includes within its brief span two
frequently abused words. Their abuse angers anthropologists, not because we are lexical
purists, but because it threatens to steal our clothes. Culture is our business, the
conceptual focus and organizing topic of our discipline. And identity: one of the buzz
words of our times. In lay discourse it has become an awful portmanteau, carrying all
sorts of murky cargo.
I shall attempt to be resolutely empirical. Without any semantlc finesse, I shall treat
identity as the way(s) in which a person is, or wishes to be, known by certain others.
"Culture as identity" thus refers to the attempt to represent the person or group in terms
of a reified and/or emblematized culture. It is a political exercise, manifest in those
processes which we frequently describe as "ethnic," the components of which are
referred to as "symbols." So we cannot avoid a little more definition--just enough to
know roughly what we are talking about. First, culture; then symbol; then ethnicity.
These are all words which have some currency in ordinary gauge, and whose academic
and anthropological usage is thereby considerably complicated. In anthropology, culture
has gone through a succession of paradigm shifts. In the past it was used to suggest a
determination of behavior; for example, that you could only think the thoughts which
your culture gave you the words to verbalize-- the infamous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; or,
that environment, technology, economic modality shaped a congruent culture which, in
turn, dictated appropriate behavior. There was then a major school of thought which
treated culture as the means by which the supposedly discrete processes of social life,
such as politics, economics, religion, kinship, were integrated in a manner which made
them all logically consistent with each other. In this view, the individual became a mere
replicate in miniature of the larger social and cultural entity. The tendency now is to treat
culture much more loosely-as that which aggregates people and processes, rather than
integrates them. It is an important distinction for it implies difference rather than
similarity among people. Thus, to talk about a culture is not to postulate a large number
of people, all of whom are merely clones of each other and of some organizing principle.
That is important, for in ordinary language the word is still used all too frequently to
imply this.
Moreover, if culture is not sui generis, exercising a determining power over people, then
it must be regarded as the product of something else: if not the logical replicate of other
social processes-say, relations of production--then of social interaction itself. In this
perspective, we have come to see culture as the outcome and product of interaction; or,
to put it another way, to see people as active in the creation of culture, rather than
passive in receiving it. If we are--in the contemporary jargon--the agents of culture's
creation, then it follows that we can shape it to our will, depending on how ingenious
and powerful we may be. And this, in the matter of the politicization of cultural identity,
is another most significant characteristic to which we will return. Culture, in this view, is
the means by which we make meaning, and with which we make the world meaningful
to ourselves, and ourselves meaningful to the world. Its vehicle is the symbol. Symbols
are quite simply carriers of meaning. To be effective, therefore, they should be
imprecise, in order that the largest possible number of people can modulate a shared

symbol to their own wills, to their own interpretive requirements: a tightly defined
symbol is pretty useless as anything other than a purely formal sign.' Symbolism is one
of the richest veins of anthropological literature, and anything I attempt to say about it
here is bound to be the grossest simplification. All I wish the reader to keep in mind is
that symbols are inherently meaningless, they are not lexical; they do not have a truth
value. They are pragmatic devices which are invested with meaning through social
process of one kind or another. They are potent resources in the arenas of politics and
Finally, ethnicity. In some respects, this is the most difficult word of the three since it
appears to mean something--indeed, has been imported into lay usage for this reason-but in practice means either everything or nothing at all. When a Labor politician or a
Birmingham policeman says ethnic, they mean "black." When the Indian Workers
Association or the Notting Hill Carnival Committee says ethnic, they mean "minority,"
usually "disadvantaged or discriminated minority." When the racial theorist says ethnic,
he refers to a relationship of blood and descent. If the word is to be anthropologically
useful, it cannot refer exclusively to any of these. Ethnicity has become a mode of action
and of representation: it refers to a decision people make to depict themselves or others
symbolically as the bearers of a certain cultural identity. The symbols used for this
purpose are almost invariably mundane items, drawn from everyday life, rather than
from elaborate ceremonial or ritual occasions. Ethnicity has become the politicization of
culture.2 Thus, it is in part a claim to a particular culture, with all that entails. But such
claims are rarely neutral. The statement made in Ethiopia, "I am Oromo"-- or in
Northern Ireland, "He's a Prod"--is clearly not merely descriptive: it has an added value,
either negative or positive, depending on who is speaking and to whom.
I referred just now to the entailments of cultural claims. one aspect of the charged nature
of cultural identity is that in claiming one, you do not merely associate yourself with a
set of characteristics: you also distance yourself from others. This is not to say that
contrast is the conscious motivation for such claims, as some writers have argued,3 but it
is implicit and is understood, the more so the more highly charged the situation may be.
Cultural identity also entails a patrimoine and a history, or the acknowledged need to
create these. It is in the expression of all of these entailments that symbolism becomes
If the ethnic card is played in identity, it is not, then, like announcing nationality.
Ethnicity is not a juridical matter, carrying legal rights and obligations. It is a political
claim, which entails political and moral rights and obligations. Please note that I use the
word nationality, not nationhood--since, as we know, nationhood may also be a
statement of claim, and is one which is often made to emphasize the circumstances of its
denial. The putative "nationhood" of Scotland, or of "the Jewish People," is the
axiomatic premise for claims, say, to nationality, or to the legitimacy of Israel's
occupation of so-called Judaea and Sumaria. But these are utterly different from the
argument made by Hong Kong Chinese regarding their entitlement to a British passport;
or from that of the British government concerning sovereignty and the Malvinas. The
one, nationality, is an argument about legal status. The other, nationhood, is a claim
about the character and integrity of one's cultural identity. They may well coincide in a
process which 0rvar Lofgren describes as "the nationalization of culture" in which
attempts are made to forge a distinctive identity, for any of a variety of strategic
reasons.4 His example is the creation of the national symbols and consciousness of
"Swedishness" in late-nineteenth century Sweden. Some other contemporary

anthropological work on this issue focuses on Israel,5 Australia,6 and Czechoslovakia;7

and the historian Peter Sahlins hasingeniously demonstrated the modulation over time of
local and national identity in the transnational Pyrenees region of the Cerdagne
(France)/Cerdanya (Spain).8
Now, the position has been taken in the past in anthropology that ethnicity--politlcized
cultural identity--was merely contrastive: that is, that it is invoked only to draw a real or
conceptual boundary. This position, associated primarily with Fredrik Barth, has
dominated ethnicity studies for more than twenty years. It seems to me inherently
unsatisfactory for reasons too complex for me to spell out here in any detail. But suffice
it to say that in treating ethnicity merely as a tactical identity, it ignored both selfconsciousness and the symbolic expression of ethnic identity. By the first, I intend to
draw attention to the idea that when we consult ourselves about who we are, that entails
something more than the rather negative reflection on "who we are not." It is also a
matter of autobiography: of things we know about ourselves; of the person we believe
ourselves to be. By the second, the symbolic expression of ethnic identity, I refer you to
the multivocality of ethnicity. If, instead of announcing myself as, say, Sri Lankan, I say
"I am Tamil," I do not mean to suggest that I am just like every other Tamil. I do not
have to sublimate myself in an anonymizing "Tamil-ness" in order to suggest that Tamils
have something significant in common which distinguishes them from Sinhalese. But
because ethnic identity is expressed through symbols, it is possible for this internal
heterogeneity to be preserved, even while masked by common symbolic forms.
I put these two matters together--the self-consciousness of ethnicity, and the symbolic
form of ethnic identity--to suggest that the political expression of cultural identity has
two distinctive registers to which we should attend. The first is used for the apparently
dogmatic statement of more or less objective doctrine: "I am a Palestinian"--and certain
things will be understood as following from that. The second is for contentious
statements which treat ethnicity as the context of, or as an aspect of, identity with very
uncertain implications: "I am a particular Palestinian." The apparently monolithic
character of ethnic identity at the collective level thus does not preempt the continual
reconstruction of ethnicity at the personal level. Ethnicity is not a dogma, although in
certain circumstances political leaders and others may attempt to politicize it to the point
at which they can enforce it dogmatically.9 But this is comparatively rare, since ethnicity
is so frequently a matter of dispute, and can only rarely command consensus for longer
than the very brief period of a specific campaign. Ethnicity has a definite appearance but
rather indefinite substance.
Ethnicity, then, is the politicization of culture; ethnic identity is a politicized cultural
identity. In what kinds of circumstance does culture become politicized, intentionally put
to the service of identity? I would suggest that the minimal conditions are that people
recognize that ignorance of their culture among others acts to their detriment; that they
experience the marginalization of their culture, and their relative powerlessness with
respect to the marginalizers.l0
With ignorance of a culture goes the denial of its integrity. Because culture is expressed
symbolically, and thus has no fixed meanings, it is often invisible to others, especially to
powerful others. In his book To Square with Genesis my colleague Alan Campbell
argues that the Brazilian government would not acknowledge the cultural desecration of
Amazonian Indians which followed hard in the wake of the environmental destruction of
the Amazon itself--through mining, highway building, and so forth--because they

insisted that there was no culture there to desecrate!ll This denial of, or threat to, cultural
integrity is experienced by people in all manner of ways: through the subordination of
indigenous languages--say, Tamil to Sinhala; Breton to French; French, among
Quebecois, to English; through the denigration of their tradition (the examples are
almost limitless--Australian Aborigines; Mongolian Buryats; Basques); and from the
outright denial of their distinctiveness--say, Armenians and most other nationalities in
the Soviet Union, sectarian groups in South Asia, and so on.
It does happen, has happened historically on a massive scale, that such continuous
denigration seems to drive people into cultural retreat, where they either make their
tradition a covert matter, or appear to desert it in large measure. Arguably, the
assimilationist stance in American race relations prior to the emergence of the Black
Power movement had something of this character. Perhaps the demise of Gaelic might
also be seen in this way. Certainly, the literature records similar responses among
Norwegian Saami, North American Indians, peoples throughout Francophone Africa,
and so on.
Perhaps the most vivid argument in this connection has been Edward Said's
Orientalism.'2 Said maintains that the Western intellectual tradition created its own
versions of oriental cultures which it imposed upon oriental peoples and then denigrated,
thereby justifying the West's own domination of the Orient as an essentially civilizing
mission--the same kind of validation that accompanied colonial expansion throughout
Africa, South Asia, and, much earlier, South America. I said above that I thought this
kind of reading of dominated cultures was mistaken--and I believe this to be because it
confuses the form of indigenous response with its substance. One thing we do know is
that the historical era in which this retreatist stance prevailed came to an end
emphatically during the later 1960s and was replaced by an assertive stance in which the
putative stigma of cultural inferiority was transformed into an emblem of its superiority-and that, really, is what lies behind the title of this paper.
So, from the experiential point of view, the politicization of cultural identity requires
people to react against their own felt disadvantage and denigration. It seems also to
occur in characteristic economic and political circumstances. So far as the former is
concerned, a crucial factor appears to be the relentless centralization of the big economy-that is to say, the increasing political, geographical, and conceptual distance between
those who produce, and those who control economic decision making.
This distance makes more difficult the expression of particularistic differences, and
therefore neglects them. Its ignorance or contempt for such differences is buttressed by
mass-marketing. The distance also means that returns from production and investment
are not merely distributed unequally, but in a way which is experienced as doubly
inequitable, because of the apparent insensitivity to it of the remote center. Hence
Scottish fishermen and French sheep farmers react to decisions made in Brussels with
vehemence and an accompanying bitterness because of the supposed ignorance behind
these decisions, rather than just of their partiality. The big economy promises much to
everyone, and is seen as delivering in a very uneven way. Therefore, writes M. Elaine
Burgess, "the myth of the 'liberal expectancy' has given way to the reality of ethnic
The political circumstances? The need for a new kind of platform a novel mode of

representation in the context of political centralization, the growth of the suprastate, the
multinational. Again, the increasing remoteness of the locus of power induces
particularistic identity--in regional, local, sectarian, linguistic, and class terms, and so on.
The remoteness of government also requires it to have local agencies, and these,
ironically, provide precedents for devolution. A Scottish office for the BBC, or for the
hitherto-centralized Universities' Funding Council or whatever, provides a model for,
and suggests the appropriateness and desirability of, devolution.'4 Also, on the subject of
precedent, the process of decolonization has no objective end to it: its logic is to
continue the process to a kind of infinite federalism. Pierre van den Berghe describes
ethnicity in the industrialized world as "the last phase of imperial disintegration." He
asks, "if the Fiji Islands can be independent, why not Scotland?"'5 If Sri Lanka, why not
a Tamil state within the island; if Ethiopia, why not Eritrea (again)? And so on. Almost
everywhere one turns, there is being played out an epic struggle for recognition, for the
acknowledgement of rights--above all, for the acknowledgement of cultural integrity.
Culture itself has become the issue, a political commodity batted around the political
playing field in a game which is as hugely complex and ramified to its participants as it
is simple and unidimensional to outside observers.
Culture is represented as identity through symbols: simple in form, complex in substance
because of their malleability, imprecision, multivocality. One can easily posit the icons
of a culture--tartanry, cuisine, costume, music--but what these mean is unspecifiable,
because their meanings vary among all those who use them. Intrinsically meaningless,
then, but powerfully eloquent, so much so that their loss or proscription may be
experienced as an utter silencing of the cultural voice. When the Inkatha militant says, "I
lose my manhood if I cannot carry my spear," this may be a protestation not of gratuitous
machismo, but of the integrity of cultural personhood, however regrettable or misguided
it may appear to be to others of us. This selection from everyday life of cultural items for
the representation of identity is a process which the American anthropologist Theodore
Schwartz has called "ethnognomony."'6
He has borrowed, some might say corrupted, the term to convey the idea of cultures
putting down their own lines of demarcation-let us call them symbolic boundaries. His
own research on Admiralty Islanders led him to the perceptive observation that the
distinctiveness which people attribute to their behavior may be imperceptible to those on
the other side of the line; moreover, that outsiders might well light upon quite other
elements of another people's behavior to emphasize their distinctiveness. But the
important suggestion to which his argument leads us is that culture is in the eyes of the
beholden rather than the beholder. This has been noted in various ways by
anthropologists for a long time: it is the significance of the "expressive" or ritualized
idiom of technical behavior that Edmund Leach referred to as an "aesthetic frill" of
otherwise instrumental action; 17 or the accomplishment of the "standardized cultural
act" which Gregory Bateson saw as celebrated by the Iatmul through the performance of
the otherwise curious Naven rites.~8 But neither these earlier writers nor Schwartz
himself followed through the implications of their arguments sufficiently to recognize
culture as the creature and product of people's own agency; and, therefore, to recognize
its malleability and efficacy in the formulation, management, and presentation of
When we look at the political processes which attended the struggles for decolonization
and the welding together of disparate indigenous entities into the solidary Independence
state, we encounter repeatedly the expedient use of a kind of folkloric "culture": the

projection of the enlarged icons of an idealized peoplehood. There are celebrated

instances: Nyerere's notion of "African Socialism"Senghor's of "ngritude"; the syncretic
merging of some aspects of Gandhi-lsm with supposedly customary principle and
practice. They are not limited to the Third World. But they belong to a pragmatic politics
in which a contrived version of a culture is employed tactically in a political encounter.
It is the phenomenon which Hobsbawm and Ranger termed, in their eponymous book,
the invention of tradition.'9 I am referring here to a rather different process: not to
culture as tactic, but to culture as the issue itself, the object of strategy. I am referring to
the circumstance in which a culture is seen to be in such a condition of crisis that the
consequence of its loss means not just the impoverishment of the social scene--like the
loss of a beautiful building--but a kind of social death, because people predicate their
very identity on "the culture."
In 1970, the Norwegian government announced for the first time its plan to dam the Alta
River at Kautokeino, in the process flooding the village of Masi and intruding upon
strategic points of the routes used by the reindeer-herding Saami in their annual pastoral
transhumance. The plan disappeared and surfaced repeatedly until, in 1981, the Supreme
Court commissioned the anthropologist Robert Pame to write a report on the
consequences for the Saami of this proposed development. He showed why these
specific locations were of such importance in the ecosystem of the migratory herds. He
further showed that, although reindeer pastoralists were a small minority of the total
Saami population of Norway, reindeer pastoralism was of the greatest importance as a
representation of Saami culture, for a variety of reasons.20 The Saami had for long been
marginalized and stigmatized. This latest incursion into their territory, for which they
claimed aboriginal rights, threatened to be the straw which broke their cultural backs. In
1982 Paine wrote "The proposed Alta/Kautokeino hydro scheme brings the Saami world
in Norway very close indeed to its 'to be or not to be.' The likely consequences are so
encompassing. They affect sedentary as well as pastoralist Saami: their ecology,
economy, demography and hence their sense of self as Saami" (90).
The Supreme Court did not uphold the objections; enabling legislation was passed; and
over a lengthy period of time dramatic protests, which mesmerized the nation, were held
both in Oslo and in Masi itself. Robert Paine has described these protests in a way which
illuminates their metatexts to leave us in no doubt that the issue was Saami culture itself.
Let me offer you just a taste. The Oslo protest was to be a hunger strike, held by young
Saami wearing traditional dress, in a traditional Saami tent (lavvo) erected for the
purpose in the grounds of the Parliament buildings:
Wednesday, 10th October.... The media watch and report. Particular note is taken of the
"valuable and varied 'instruction' in Saami culture" which the strikers--with megaphone
in hand--offer: communal singing, Saami poetry, joik and historical legends. Sometimes
a person steps out of the crowd, grasps one or other of the Saami group and tells him (in
Saami) that he himself is a Saami--adding that this is something he had kept secret since
coming to live in Oslo.
The Saami group already shows concern lest the crowd turn In anger on the police
should they come to take them (the strikers) away. They remind everybody that "our
action is one of passive resistance. The Saami people are a nation with strong traditions
of passive resistance." . . . Thursday, 11th October.... In their reporting from the scene,

journalists mention "black" and "silent" figures standing inside the large window of the
parliament building overlooking the tent and the milling crowds of Eidsvolls plass. The
dark silhouettes are those of members of parliament. The imagery and the contrast is
unmistakable: inside the building all is dark and, for once, the politicians are not talking;
outside, all is light and life.2'
The strikers were arrested and the tent was pulled down. Their "spokesman" assured
journalists that they were not going to give up, but intended to continue their hunger
strike quietly--"in the Saami way" (198). And, indeed, this is what they did. What has to
be noted here is that it is the very everyday emblems of their culture, by which they have
been recognized and stigmatized in the past, which they now turn against the state to
denigrate it and to proclaim their own moral cause. The strikers shrewdly used their own
symbols--lavvo, joik (ballad) passivity--to politicize their culture and to transform the
value of their identity. As Paine put it, "Saami ethnicity was demonstrated on a basis of
self- ascription and self-advocacy" (201). As a strategy of assertiveness, this reversal of
stigma has become characteristic during the last quarter century: blacks became
"beautiful"; ladies became "women"; Eskimos and Lapps became, respectively, Inuit and
The imperative need to posit culture as identity can arise from many different
circumstances. I mentioned earlier those of a perception of imminent and possibly
cataclysmic crisis; and of the attempt to reverse extreme disadvantage. It appears also
when there is a perceived threat to the distinctiveness of a group through its assimilation
or the blurring of its boundaries, or as the consequence of internal differentiation or
disagreement. One finds then a politicization of culture or tradition or whatever putative
dogma provides the raison d'tre of the group. The call for a jihad to unite nations against
a common enemy, in order to mask the internecine nature of dispute between
themselves; the spurious elevation of Zionism to the status of religious obligation; and
the "metaphorization" of culture as a response to such historical circumstances as
demographic and economic change, secularization, integration, and vulnerability to new
kinds of information. For example, in his book A Sinhala Village in a Time of Trouble,
my colleague Jonathan Spencer describes the use of a Buddhist ritual construct
(perahara) and of the village temple itself (pansala) to recreate the solidarity which had
supposedly characterized the village in the past before it had been transformed by
infrastructural change, new agricultural technology, education, the growth of political
opposition and faction and the increasing heterogeneity of its population. The materials
used in this attempt to contrive community symbolically were drawn from "the language
of reformed Buddhism,"2~ and had no great historical depth. Similarly, Spencer found
that the children of the village represented it visually in terms of three icons of similarly
doubtful pedigree and accuracy: tank (cistern), paddy field, and stupa: "These are the
three national symbols of rural order, and it mattered little that one of these [the tank]
had only recently been rebuilt, the second provided work for only a fraction of these
children's parents, and the third did not yet exist. The children had been provided with a
visual mnemonic for 'our village' which more than anything, made 'our village' an
integral part of the nation as an imagined community of villages" (241).
It would be quite incorrect to construe as cynical these representations of identity in
somewhat contrived cultural terms: their expression and use speaks rather of a
commitment to the integrity of culture and group. It is only by making the culture
visible, so to speak, that its bearers can gain some awareness of what they have to
defend, and those to whom it is vulnerable can be made aware of what they might

otherwise damage, unwittingly or deliberately. So far as indigenes are concerned, the

iconization of culture is no more than a means of agreeing on a very limited number and
range of symbols as a kind of lowest common denominator, which can be interpreted
and rendered privately by each of them in ways to suit themselves. Apparent uniformity
in the terms of public discourse glosses over an uncountable multitude of divergences of
meaning. But for outsiders, it is a caution against their cultural blindness.
For example, the tradition of the Fourth World peoples frequently refers to their
incomparably expert use of the land, as either hunters and gatherers, or as pastoralists,
which is based on their expert knowledge and attitudes to the land, both of which are
peculiar to the people themselves and are not accessible to outsiders. The reason is quite
simple: outsiders cannot see the land in the same way; and, therefore, they cannot know
what they are looking at. The cultural boundedness of Australian Aboriginal perception
has been amply documented both in ethnography and in fiction. The stereotypical
insensitivity of the white to Aboriginal sacred places may be a consequence of contempt
in some cases; but it is certainly the result of cultural blindness in most. To us a stone is
a stone; to the Aboriginal, it conceals an ancestor. Another celebrated example is the
Inuit perception and verbal description of snow in its numerous varieties; a skill
supposedly denied to us, not just because our sight is defective, but because our
language is deficient in appropriate descriptive terms. There is nothing peculiarly Fourth
World-ish about this: the literature on East African cattle pastoralists is full of references
to the richness of terms available to describe cattle pigmentation and so on.23 Closer to
home, I have commented on the extent of the vocabulary available to and created by
Whalsay Islanders in Shetland to describe the condition of the sky.24 But we should not
be thinking in terms of unique conditions. The point is that, in the politically charged
context of relations between the Fourth World peoples and the state, any of these things
are ripe for investment culturally with political significance. Thus, the material
conditions of social life provide the means for the symbolic construction of a cultural
identity. Analogous terms of identification are available to all groups for whom culture
has become the issue.
There is an eloquent example in Harvey Feit's description of the resistance of the James
Bay Cree Indians to the appropriation of their land for the development of a
hydroelectric scheme.25 The government's case was that the condition of the flora and
fauna would be expertly monitored by government scientists using the most
sophisticated scientific techniques available. During the 1930s the federal and provincial
governments, following typical British colonial practice, had attempted to impose on the
Misstassini-Cree structures of leadership and representation which essentially turned
Cree incumbents into the servants of external agencies. The agencies spoke in terms of
"possession," for that is what the division of federal and provincial powers in Canada is
Both extraneous "expertise" and "possession" of the land were anomalous and offensive
ideas for Cree. Their own monitoring of natural resource stocks is meticulous and
detailed in a way in which the far less sensitive classifications employed by botanists
could not possibly be. In part this is because of an indigenous monitoring structure. The
Misstassini-Cree are a band society based on discrete hunting territories. Feit notes some
three hundred such territories with an average extent of 120 square kilometers, each
under the control, not of an owner but of a "steward." The language is significant. For
the Cree, land cannot be owned, for ownership implies rights, including the right to

In their view, there cannot be such a right, for this would preempt the rights of their own
successors. At any time, therefore, the band--specifically, its headman--IS custodian or
steward of the land, holding it in trust but not in ownership. Part of this trust is to ensure
the healthy condition of the resource stock for future generations and, hence, the
responsibility for monitoring and conservation. Hunting and gathering strategies are
dictated by these requirements. The appointment of a scientist with authority over the
use of the land is thus (a) offensive since it denigrates indigenous structures,
responsibilities, and expertise; (b) ill-advised, because such a person is bound to be
inexpert relative to the Cree themselves, and his lack of knowledge jeopardizes their
future; and (c) denies their traditional rights, for it is based on putative ownership, which
is at odds with their own custodianship.
Displacement from the land is thus wounding in multiple ways It deprives indigenous
peoples of their means of subsistence and of their self-sufficiency. It deprives them of
their symbolic resources whether these are sacred places or cherished skills. It deprives
them of their characteristic knowledge for, once removed from the land this rapidly
disappears and transforms them from masters of their own environment into childlike
naivete in somebody else's, plunging them into a demeaning tutelary relationship.26 It
deprives them of the dignity which inheres in self-control, and replaces it with the
ignominy of dependency. Territorial occupation becomes an idiom for culture which, in
turn, serves as a representation of identity.
Wherever one sees this kind of struggle--whether in Norwegian Saamlland, in the Torres
Straits Islands, among Kayap Indians, in South Aslan "communalism," or in Southern
Africa--there seems to be an almost irresistible inclination to explain behavior by
treating it as the product of culture: the Zulus or Yanomamo are said to be warlike or
aggressive; some other society might be spoken of as constrained in its thought and
action by its cosmology or its kinship system or whatever. There is a fundamental
confusion here between culture as a body of substantive fact (which it is not) and as a
body of symbolic form which provides means of expression but does not dictate what is
expressed or the meaning of what is expressed. In this respect, culture is insubstantial:
searching for it is like chasing shadows. It is not so much that it does not exist as that it
has no ontology: it does not exist apart from what people do, and therefore what people
do cannot be explained as its product. Culture can be invoked as a means of representing
them--as, for example, when it is deployed as identity. But in those circumstances it must
be regarded in the same way as any other symbolic expression: as being inherently
meaningless but capable of substantiation at the discretion of those who use it-multireferential, multivocal, an infinitely variable tool. The old saw, "when I hear the
word 'culture' I reach for my gun," has been attributed to sources as disparate as T. S.
Eliot and Hermann Goering, Bertrand Russell and Malcolm Muggeridge. The word
culture ill-used does make me pretty angry. It is not synonymous with ideology; it is not
to be inferred from scattered shards of ancient pottery. But my anger increases to
apoplexy when I hear culture magnified and reified as "the culture of" a people. If we are
the agents and substantiators of our cultures, rather than their creatures, we must resist
the temptation to depict culture as the monolithic determinant of our behavior. If culture
did have that character, it would equip us with uniform rather than with identity. Culture
is a matter less for documentation than for interpretation; it is more faithfully and
sensitively depicted in metaphor than in museums. Its intellectual fascination lies in its
extraordinary versatility, which is precisely what makes it such an eloquent
representation of identity.

1.See Anthony P. Cohen, The Symbolic Construction of Community (London, 1985), p.
2. See Robert P. B. Paine, "Norwegians and Saami: Nation-state and Fourth World, in
Minorities and Mother-country Imagery, ed. Gerald L. Gold (St. John's, Nfld., 1984), p.
3. See, e.g., Fredrik Barth, "Introduction," in Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social
Organisation of Culture Difference, ed. Fredrik Barth (London, 1969), pp. 9-38; and
James A. Boon, Other Tribes, Other Scribes: Symbolic Anthropology in the
Comparatlve .Study of Cultures, Histories, Religions and Texts (Cambridge, 1982).
4 See 0rvar L0fgren, "The Nationalization of Culture," Ethnologia Europaea, 19 (1989),
5 See Don Handelman, Models and Mirrors: Towards an Anthropology of Public Events
(Cambridge, 1990); and Robert P. B. Paine, "Masada between History and Meaning,"
paper presented to the Conference of the Canadian Historical Association (1991).
6 See Bruce Kapferer, Legends of People, Myths of State (Washington, D.C., 1988).
7 See Ladislav Holy, "Freedom, Nation and Personhood in Czechoslovakia" (St.
Andrews, 1990, mimeo).
8 See Peter Sahlins, Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees
(Berkeley, 1989).
9 See David E. Apter, "Political Religion in the New Nations," in Old Societies and New
States: The Quest for Modernity in Asia and Africa, ed. Clifford Geertz (New York,
1963), pp. 57-104.
10 See Anthony P. Cohen, The Management of Myths: The Politics of Legitimation in a
Newfoundland Community (Manchester, 1975).
11 See Alan T. Campbell, To Square with Genesis: Causal Statements and Shamanic
Ideas in Wayapi (Edinburgh, 1989).
12 See Edward Said, Orientalism (London, 1978).
13 M. Elaine Burgess, "The Resurgence of Ethnicity: Myth or Reality?" Ethnic and
Racial Studies, 1 (1978), 280.
14 See Charlotte Holmes Aull, "Ethnic Nationalism in Wales: An Analysis of the Factors
Governing the Politicization of Ethnic Identity," unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Duke
University, 1978.
15 Pierre L. van den Berghe, "Ethnic Pluralism in Industrial Societies: A Special Case?"
Ethnicity, 3 (1976), 247.
16 See Theodore Schwartz, "Cultural Totemism: Ethnic Identity Primitive and Modern,"
in Ethnic Identity: Cultural Continuities and Change, ed. George A. De Vos and Lola
Romanucci-Ross (Palo Alto, Calif., 1975), pp. 106-31.
17 Edmund Leach, Political Systems of Highland Burma (London, 1954), p. 12.
18 See Gregory Bateson, Naven: A Survey of the Problems Suggested by a Composite
Picture of the Culture of a New Cuinea Tribe Drawn from Three Points of View, 2nd ed.
(Stanford, Calif., 1958).
19 See The Invention of Tradition, ed. E. J. Hobsbawn and T. O. Ranger (Cambridge,
20 See Robert P. B. Paine, Dam a River, Damn a People?: Saami (Lapp) Livelihood and
the Alta/Kautokeino Hydro-Electric Project and the Norwegian Parliament
(Copenhagen, 1982); hereafter cited in text. See also, Odd Terje Brantenberg, "The AltaKautokeino Conflict: Saami Reindeer Herding and Ethnopolitics," in Native Power: The
Quest for Autonomy and Nationhood of Indigenous Peoples, ed. Jens Br0sted et al.

(Bergen, 1985), pp. 23-48.

21 Robert P. B. Paine, "Ethnodrama and the 'Fourth World': The Saami Action Group in
Norway, 1979-81," in Indigenous Peoples and the Nation-State: Fourth World Politics in
Canada, Australia and Norway, ed. Noel Dyck (St. John's, Nfld., 1985), pp. 196-97;
hereafter cited in text.
22 See Jonathan Spencer, A Sinhalese Village in a Time of Trouble (Delhi, 1990), p. 69;
hereafter cited in text.
23 See David Turton, "There's No Such Beast: Cattle and Colour-Naming among the
Mursi," MAN (N.S.), 15 (1980), 320-38.
24 See Anthony P. Cohen, Whalsay: Symbol, Segment and Boundary in a Shetland
Island Community (Manchester, 1987), pp. 126-32.
25 See Harvey Feit, "Legitimation and Autonomy in James Bay Cree Responses to
Hydro-Electric Development," in Indigenous Peoples and the Natlon-State, pp. 27--66
26 See Robert P. B. Paine, "Tutelage and Ethnicity: A Variable Relationship," m The
White Arctic: Anthropological Essays on Tutelage and Ethnicity, ed. Robert P. B. Paine
(St. John's, Nfld., 1977), pp. 249-63.