Identity politics: Have anthropologists gone too far?
Inspired by a lecture by Peter Geschiere, anthropologist Yara El-Ghadban discusses a difficult and central question in our discipline: How to deconstruct a notion without destroying the meaning that it has for people?
In order to challenge stereotypical Us-and-them-thinking, anthropologists show how notions like nationality, the nation state, ethnic group, race or culture are constructions. But for many people, belonging to “artifical” groups is extremly important. Anthropologists should therefore take people’s striving for belonging more seriously, Yara El-Ghadban writes:
Palestinians in diaspora have survived and continue to survive because they can still imagine being part of a shared homeland. Artificial or not, idealized or not, the imagined homeland has served as a catalyst of resistance and getting out of the refugee camps.
Constructed or not, artificial or not, these notions are invested in meaning, they are used and referred to in everyday life, so unless anthropologists are willing to go back to their old habits of telling people who they are and how they should think, we have an obligation to take seriously the meaning and value that groups and individuals invest in belonging.
The method of deconstruction, she continues, has been fruitful in denaturalizing and exposing implicit discourses of power. But it has been unsatisfying in understanding why people are attached to such notions beyond treating them as being manipulated and helpless.
So how to resolve this dilemma of trying to deconstruct a notion without destroying in the same exercise the meaning that it has or has always had for people, she asks. Anthropologists should change the root question, she suggests:
Instead of starting from the premise that autochtony is constructed and thus inevitably artificial, I would actually build on the premise that human beings are quintessentially social and can only enact their humanity by relating to others, and in that sense, the longing to be part of something, to be attached is a condition of being (be-longing to cite David Goldberg). The question then is not how artificial or hegemonic one form of being is or not, but how individuals and groups strive to find belonging in a contemporary world that is constantly calling into question canonized myths of origin.