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How to challenge Us-and-Them thinking? Interview with Thomas Hylland Eriksen

As some of you might know, I work as a journalist at the interdisciplinary research programme Culcom - Cultural Complexity in the New Norway. I’ve just put online the English translation of my interview with Thomas Hylland Eriksen, research director of Culcom.

We talk about how hard it is to challenge conventional academic thinking and to establish a new analytical view of the world.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen says:

- What we are trying to do is shift the analytical gaze in a direction where the nation-state and the ethnic group are not viewed as the most important unit. It is here researchers like Knut Kjeldstadli have been vital in insisting on the significance of class, or Oddbjørn Leirvik, who points out that differences in value-based questions cuts across the majority and minority population.

- In this way, lines of distinction that are somewhat different than those common to immigrant research, in which an us-and-them way-of-thinking is common, get established. And in addition, the transnational perspective leads to a de-centering of the nation-state; it is almost like a small Copernican revolution.

We also talk about open access and dissemination via our website. He says:

- Working in a place where most of what is published is electronically available and can be downloaded as a PDF has been a dream of mine for many years, even in the transnational sense: Then people who are in Switzerland and India can get onto our webpages, download texts and use our research in their own work. There is no reason why this should cost money.

>> read the whole interview with Thomas Hylland Eriksen

There are two more new interviews online about related issues.

Hans Erik Næss criticizes in his thesis the methodologicial nationalism in sociology text books. Sociology does not focus enough on transnational aspects in society. His thesis contains not only suggestions for a better sociology, but also an alternative required reading list.

>> read the whole interview: “In favor of a more transnational sociology”

Gunn Camilla Stang has written one of the first studies on Polish labour migrants in Norway. She says that debates about migration should focus more on the possiblities of learning. In viewing Polish laborers primarily as (cheap) labor, companies miss out in a great deal of knowledge they could have used to improve routines and products.

>> read the whole interview “More than “social dumping””

And Arnfinn Haagensen Midtbøen explains us why Scandinavia should be illuminated as an interesting region in migration research.

>> Interview: Does migration strengthen the nation-state?

We have relaunched our website, and our English pages are “still under construction”


Comment from: John Postill [Visitor]  
John Postill

TH Eriksen says:

What we are trying to do is shift the analytical gaze in a direction where the nation-state and the ethnic group are not viewed as the most important unit. It is here researchers like Knut Kjeldstadli have been vital in insisting on the significance of class, or Oddbjørn Leirvik, who points out that differences in value-based questions cuts across the majority and minority population.

The trouble I have with this strategy is that it seems to posit another a priori. Instead of nation-states and ethnic groups as a prioris, it seems to want to start off with transnational ‘flows’ and mobility. Surely we should keep an open mind as to the relative salience of different social formations and geographical (in)mobility in the various locales we study? For instance, in Timor Leste (East Timor) the aim of the govt and a majority of the people is to build a ‘nation-state’ out of a former Indonesian province and Portuguese colony. To me one key factor in contemporary East Timorese life - and indeed across the postcolonial world - is the nation-state as a pervasive and elusive collective ideal (an impossible ideal) with huge implications for people’s lives. Shouldn’t we switch off our own idealism when entering the field and try to understand what matters to the (inter)locals in their own terms?



2008-08-28 @ 20:55
Comment from: John Postill [Visitor]  
John Postill

PS mmm, I think I’ve just unwittingly reproduced the prevailing nation-speak by starting off with East Timor as my framing device! OK, let me rephrase that: if you go to do research in the city of Dili, on the island of Timor, you’ll probably find constant references to an entity called Timor Leste (East Timor), the recently independent state where local elites and their foreign backers are busy with state- and nation-building. My hypothesis is that over time, say in 40-50 years time, a distinctively East Timorese culture (web of sedimented practices) will emerge. This is what has happened in Singapore and Malaysia since their acrimonious divorce in 1965 - they have each developed distinctive states and cultural institutions on the back of their separate politico-administrative projects. Same applies to Spain and Portugal since C12, and would happen to Catalonia and the Basque country should they eventually secede sometime in C21.

2008-08-28 @ 21:38
Comment from: lorenz [Member]  

Hi John,

the only a priori is that the nation-state and the ethnic group are not viewed as the most important unit a priori. In conventional migration studies the units aren’t discussed at all. So the point is to be open for what kind of groups that are relevant. It can of course be the nation. And as Arnfinn Haagensen Midtbøen explains in the fourth interview, migration might actually strengthen the nation state in some regard.

And even your case can be analysed with a transnational perspective. Nothing happens in a vacuum

2008-08-28 @ 22:26
Comment from: Dylan [Visitor]  

While no doubt class is an important analytical device and point of inquiry, i dont believe your notion of moving from the nation-state and the ethnic group to the significance of class is such a straightforward enterprise by merely privileging the importance of transnationalism as a universal. There are authors such as Lloyd Best from the Caribbean that would say class as articulated by European Marxism in the west does not make sense to the history of the Caribbean. in fact he posits class as a base of a new definition of ethnicity.

Challenging conventional academic thought by becoming an economic determinist sounds a bit weak from where im sitting. Yes no doubt class figures into any analysis of any area in the world today, but it certainly cant be what you mean how to challenge us and them thinking.

All that said the place idea is extremely relevant - but then necessarily how do you avoid dealing with ethnic realities and of course the plethora of ethnicities that exist in all spaces and in their existence make place, whatever the transnational connections.

Ethnicity is extremely relevant perhaps just not in the way its theorised by scholars trained in Western canon

2008-08-28 @ 23:46
Comment from: John Postill [Visitor]  
John Postill

Hi Lorenz

Gotcha, then we’re agreed.

Thanks, my only concern was that we don’t downplay the cultural resilience of states given the general hostility within sociocultural anthropology to the idea of national cultures since the 1960s.

My own experience of living in Bucharest, Kuala Lumpur, Madrid, Durham, etc, tells me that we may not have an adequate term for them, but the ‘national cultures’ of Romania, Malaysia, Spain, Britain and so on are still alive and well in people’s day-to-day rounds of activities. In fact, if anything I think in anthropology we should pay *more* attention, not less, to national culture!


2008-08-28 @ 23:47
Comment from: thomas [Member]  
Thomas Hylland Eriksen

I thank John Postill and Dylan for their comments (and Lorenz for his clarifying response); let me try to do some clarification as well. Obviously, the end of (methodological) nationalism does not in any way imply the end of (methodological) nationality, just as a critique of territorialism in geography cannot do away with territoriality. Yet both these critiques (and similar ones) are not only justified, but necessary lest analytical tools become blunted and research uninteresting, or worse: social research, including anthropology, ends up just mirroring hegemonic ideologies.

The context in which Lorenz’ interview was made was that of minority and migration research, with a particular emphasis on the situation in Norway. The general tendency here is to take ethnic, national or religious group identities for granted in accounts of social and cultural dynamics involving minorities, thereby freezing such distinctions, in other words reproducing popular views instead of developing new knowledge and understanding. It would not, incidentally, be easy to defend the view that methodological nationalism is in short supply in Norwegian academic life.

Methodological nationalism distorts reality. To take a recent example: Media and politicians in Norway regularly bemoan the poor integration of Somali immigrants into Norwegian society. During the last week, the leading serious newspaper of the country has brought at least three major feature stories about Somali; two of them describe social problems among Somali (khat-chewing, domestic violence, unemployment etc.); the third, an attempt to make amends perhaps, depicts the successful integration of Somali in a rural mountain community. Had a perspective from transnationalism supplemented that of nationalism, the description of Somali lives in Norway would arguably not only have been more accurate and in many ways more true to their own self-perception, but it would also have suggested that what passes for poor integration also can have an aspect of a fairly successful transnational adaptation.

I don’t think either John or Dylan disagrees with this. Labelling practices can be pernicious; the uncritical reproduction of hegemonic labelling practices is a recipe for intellectual laziness. This does not mean that I am averse to research on Trinidadian ethnicity or the politics of identity in Timor Leste (in the above paragraph, after all, I used the term ”Somali” myself, and in fact I spent years trying to understand the dynamics of ethnicity in Trinidad), only that ”rigorous empiricism” (to use Edwin Ardener’s tongue-in-cheek term) in anthropology presupposes an analytical openness and a (self-) critical view of social categorisation enabling us to see the limitations of our own theoretical constructions. Reducing ethnicity to class is hopeless, but neglecting class and other salient features of social reality, such as transnational ties, hardly improve matters either.

2008-08-31 @ 22:47
Comment from: Maximilian Forte [Visitor]  
Maximilian Forte

I have a question about this. It seems (very late) that we are rediscovering the analytical limitations of what most others call state-centrism as a problematic unit of analysis because much of what happens in the world-system transcends or cuts across states. I think this is what Thomas Eriksen is calling “methodological nationalism,” and he and many of us find it as problematic as “ethnocentrism,” perhaps for different reasons.

However, you have introduced methodology into the discussion – and here is my question:

I would like to know how a discipline that has privileged, if not reduced itself to ethnography, can ever hope to methodologically study anything beyond the very small group. Simply adding multiple ethnographies does not seem to address this problem. The problem, if questioning state-centrism, is that we have the wrong kind of data for understanding the world-system, that wrong kind of data including both national statistics and ethnographies.

2008-09-02 @ 18:30
Comment from: thomas [Member]  
Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Thanks for asking, Maximilian. Obviously this is a huge question. To begin with, methodological nationalism/state-centrism bifurcates down to the “ethnic group", and many – Keith Hart perhaps most eloquently – have criticized classic anthropology along such lines, arguing that anthropologists have tended to “invent” stable, bounded ethnic groups where boundaries were in fact fluid, flexible, permeable and so on, simply because they assumed that “African tribes” were organised roughly like nations.

But this doesn’t even begin to answer your question. The answer is, to my mind, a mixed methodology such as the one used to great effect by Eric Wolf in “Europe and the people without history", where he offers an anthropological reading of historical documents. In my view, anthropology would profit by defining itself as a way of thinking (about diverse materials) rather than a set of methods.

Finally, anthropologists have in fact studied states, admittedly using mixed method, but relying heavily on ethnography. James Ferguson, James Scott and Lisa Malkki are some of them.

But your question is highly pertinent, and the final word has by no means been said.

2008-09-02 @ 23:49


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