Emerging Anthropological Categories

by Hugh M. Lewis


Rich and poor alike, we are all cultural refugees of modern development.


The process, prospect and presence of global stratification has brought with it the emergence of a new sense of social solidarity and new anthropological categories and models of identity and difference.

It is appropriate to refer to "ethno-cultures" in a similar sense that Immanuel Wallerstein referred to "ethno-nations" that are defined primarily by their interrelationship and positionality within a Capitalist World System. Ethno-cultural identity, process, praxis and boundary must be seen as defined primarily by its relative social-structural inter-positionality within a regional-interregional framework, in relation to other ethnocultural categories and groupings.

The social and structural relations that serve to demarcate these emergent categories and groupings can be principally defined by a multi-factorial model of religious affiliation, political-economic role, and social, symbolic-ideological reference within the System.

These categories share some characteristics of previous social anthropological categories--class, caste, corporate organization, party, ethnic grouping. But in their unique recombination of these different facets they tend to be historically unique and unprecedented, and also they tend to be crosscutting most of the other categories. In one sense, they resemble castes by virtue of broadly defined roles in specialized economic sectors, by certain endogamous or hyper-gamous marriage patterns among some groups to the exclusion of others, and by relatively closed vertical mobility. In another respect, they are more like class institutions defined by their relative dominance and command (or lack) of the critical moment of the marketplace in the uneven acquisition and distribution of status wealth and material and social resources, in the availability or desperateness of screens of social opportunity and support, and in their defined sociality as dependent, dominant, de-socialized or pro-social. Within ethnocultural categories there is a certain degree of class hierarchy and mobility defined by the relative degree of openness of the grouping. They resemble ethnic groups as ethnization and ethnic identity tend to be principal modes of social mobilization and organization within ethnocultural groupings. This kind of ethnic stratifications wears off into a form of rainbow racism. (Koreans are good businessmen, Vietnamese women have tricky, nimble fingers, poor Blacks are indolent, poor Whites are trash") One's nominal identification within one ethno-racial type or another becomes broadly determinative of one's status positionality.

In such a context Social racism also becomes an exclusive prerogative of the Beautiful--it will not matter what color the multicultural anti-drug squad is, as long as they are all young, talented, handsome and athletic. In this regard Americans are not the only global consumers suffering the burden of high-speed trauma, over-dieting, overweight and cosmetic surgery.

In regard to axis of stratification, it is useful to regard such ethnocultural differentiation as being based upon a form of diagonal stratification. It lacks the verticality of a strongly class stratified system, and the horizontalness of a caste-stratified system. Diagonal stratification is characterized by the competitive coexistence of multiple, skewed, overlapping hierarchies. Individuals within a broader social order may come to occupy a place in several different hierarchies simultaneously. It is no longer useful to make distinctions between Jews and Catholics, or between Blacks, Browns or Whites. It becomes more important to determine whether we are referring to an Orthodox Jew or a Jewish American, whether we are talking about a professional Black from Diamond Bar or a poor black teenager in Compton, or White Italian Americans or Anglo-Americans from upper-middle class suburbia of New Jersey or their West-Coast counterparts in Anaheim Hills or Irvine. These kinds of fine-tuned distinctions of contemporary, domestic American Society, can be extended to practically any continent in the world today. The San bush people now are defined in their present ethnocultural identity not so much by their distinctive, and anthropologically romanticized past, as they have become encapsulated by a dominant African society. An educated, westernized Malay from KL is not the same kind of social creature as his/her Bumiputra cousin from an ulu kampong in the hinterland provinces. An educated Japanese businessman from Tokyo is a different kind of person than an Okinawan sugarcane grower.

This points upon a peculiar characteristic of ethnocultural groupings--from an outsider's point of view, the internal differences and sub-ethnic distinctions are invisible. To a large extent one's relevant social identity is situationally and contextually defined. If one were a U.S. serviceperson in the gulf, relationship to Saudi's or Iraqi's would be measured principally by their shared "Americanness" rather than by their being black, hispanic, southern white or male and female. These are distinctions that may yet continue to make a critical difference in regard to within-group social relations, chances for promotion, etc.

What is important to recognize from an anthropological perspective is not only the cross-cutting nature of these distinctions and their emerging pre-eminence in the contemporary world scene, but that an individual's existential predicament, life-chances, perspective, and life-trajectory will be to a significant degree predetermined by their local, specific ethno-cultural identity. Chances are good that an abandoned child in the streets of Rio de Janeiro will become a victim of the Brazilian death squad if that child cannot find an adoptive American parent, but are virtually nil that s/he will make it to Harvard. On the other hand, a third Generation son of Havardians stand pretty good chances of graduating with honors from Harvard, but will most likely not be asassinated in the back streets of Rio. These examples are not exceptional by their extremeness--compare the likely life-trajectory of an average poor black kid in South Central L.A. or a Chicano in neighboring Southeast L.A. with that of an average son of a Korean or Vietnamese business man in the same areas.

There are some noteworthy properties emergent from the rise to predominance of ethno-cultural identity. One's local ethnocultural context will present coherent models and categories and cognitive cultural landscapes for interpreting the world which will likely take precedence over other, alternative schemas which may be broader-based or more strategic. More often than not the high visibility and marked character of these local identities will be overwhelming for the average person caught upon in the daily predicament of social adjustment and survival. They will be seen to have more immediate relevance and will present a stronger force of social solidarity than other agencies of order. Under such circumstances, the voices and points of view of one's compatriots who share the same ethnocultural identity will be heard before the distant, often anonymous voices of social workers or representatives of a big, impersonal system.

One does not need to look to the dramatic historical events in the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe to see the importance of the emergence of new ethnocultural categories and identities. One can see a parallel and similar phenomenon here in the U.S. in gang activity of inner cities which spill out into many suburbs and commercial districts. But again, we can interpret the activities and political maneuvering of an Orange Country republican, of a university administrator, or of a presidential appointee of the Bush administration as being guided by a similar set of ethnoculturally defined interests and models. From this standpoint, American government may not be generally regarded as inefficient and dysfunctional because of an over-weaning bureaucracy or a top-heavy administration, but because the predominant motivations and incentives which lead critical actors to make choices may have become redefined within an international order of ethno-cultural stratification. In such a context, the only genuinely spurious fool is the ultra American Hero--a young reservist veteran of the Gulf War--who believes naively in doing duty to his country. But even then, the socio-cultural relativity implied by the notion of ethnocultural stratification assures us that even this actor has a deeper sense of history and may most likely simply following the tune to a different drummer.

Several interesting aspects emerge from this consideration of ethnocultural stratification. Competition and cooperation may be defined by a differential, variably defined range of group reference. At one level, one may be an Hispanic employer cooperating with all who may however vaguely fall under the umbrella of "Hispanicity" in competition with any and every Gringo. Upon another level, one may be competing for economic survival against other Hispanic businessmen, and on yet another level one may in fact not be so much symbiotically cooperating with one's ethnocultural subordinates, as taking advantage of their ethnocultural predicament or even grossly exploiting them. Of course, when and if it comes to government sugar, it may behoove the same person to emphasize one's American citizenship or residency before one's Hispanicity. And if your Gringoized daughter ends up marrying a southern white Texan from a poor white trash background, one may feel obliged either to disown the daughter or make one's new son-in-law a manager in one's business--a choice in some measure determined by which alternative will be the least expensive.

The important point to emphasize is that however it is defined, ethnocultural solidarity becomes fundamentally framed within a competitive/cooperative framework. In such a nomothetically defined social context, history is likely to be contrived and convenient, and prejudicial attitudes and authoritarianisms based upon group-reference, comparison, structural inter-positionality, and perceived competition for the same resources.

Another dimension of this ethnocultural emergence is that in one sense it comes from a human response to the near total alienation and depersonalization of the global system. It fills in important socio-cultural gaps in the human condition that the imperative to develop or perish has created. The other side of the coin of this facet of ethnocultural solidarity is that it is greatly manipulated and maintained through the mass media. It is a modern village mentality of a global, electronic village stimulated by daily doses of electronic drugs. Three blacks who pull a white truck driver out of his cab to beat him with bricks and kicks to the head are not doing it because they hate or even know that individual, but because they hate the ethnocultural category that the person symbolically represents. It may have been any white in the same context. Fifteen white police officers standing around and beating on a single black with their batons are not beating on a person, but on an impersonal object of their ethnocultural scorn and derision, an ambassador of intolerable difference. The mass media has proven to be an effective agent in mobilizing or immobilizing the mass mentality of the individual. Leaders of ethnocultural groupings have come to increasingly realize and deliberately exploit this potential of the mass media--Hitler was one of the first and most effective in this regard. Reagan as an actor was also a convincing leader. The media can be used to cultivate a sense of urgency or immediacy of a distant reality far out-of-proportion to the relevancies of one's daily life.

Yet another dimension of ethnocultural stratification has been that people who occupy similar or parallel positions in one society or area may actually have more which is in common in terms of values, outlooks, life-chances and adaptations, with their counterparts in other, foreign societies, than with their neighbors in the next neighborhood, on the next street, or even in the house next door. Within such a world, the most tactically desirable place to be is well situated within a broad and extensive ethno-cultural network, and the worst place to be is without any network or sense of ethnocultural identity at all. It does little good if one's only true brothers under the skin live clear across town or on the other end of a vast, anonymous city. On the other hand, with the worldwide availability of fax machines, crystal clear telephones and computer party lines, one does not have to live next door to keep in constant touch with one's closest ally. We can expect far-fetched, multiplex, sophisticated lateral networks of ethnocultural groupings to continue to coalesce and emerge from super-city to super-city, university to university, to the point at which one may share more in common with one's computer processor-pal than with one's neighbors, compeers at work, department colleagues, or even other members of one's family.

Family patterns and values must also be expected to become altered within an emergent ethnocultural framework. It would be virtually impossible to maintain a healthy, reproductive sex life with one's partner via a fax machine or modem. On the other hand one can give birth to virtual strangers and be a natural sibling to one's worst competitor. Family will become ad-hoc and modularly customized social unit to fit the temporary needs and concerns of the immediate arrangement. Lifetime monogamy and true love may increasingly become the anachronisms of a bygone, romantic era, an exception to the rule of single parent families and latch-key kids.

This promises that ethno-cultural groupings will be largely ephemeral phenomena, coming and going about as rapidly as fads or publishers of modern poetry. The factors that would guarantee the long-term stability and survival of an oxymoronic natural culture would not be present to ensure the long-term, corporate continuation of ethno-cultures. Ethnocultural 'miscegenation,' re-diffusion, transculturation, and intermigration between groupings would spell the rapid rise and demise of such units.

We might also expect the rise of a increasing number of "ethnocultural inbetweenies"--children of the ethnocultural interstices who, like homeless refugees of the world, have no coherent cultural orientation to give themes a sense of balance. These individuals would not fit strictly any particular ethnocultural category-and instead would become the hapless citizens and heirs of a global seventh-World- a new Third Culture defined by its lack of attachment to any particular cultural orientation. Initially, they would be defined by their nondescript social anonymity and Chameleoness. No one factor or even group of factors would be critical to the determination of their identity. They may coalesce to form their own siblinghood of mutual codependency, or they may be cast to sea by host societies that demand some specifiable, certifiable kind of passport for entry. And yet we may find among these unique gray people, a unique identity of ethnocultural diversity.

Certain persistent, broad dimensions may be expected to emerge from the process of ethnocultural stratification. Particular groupings may become rapidly supplanted by others, but all may come to fill in a continuing, long term fold in the manifold social topography of the world system. The corporate persistence of this broad social categories and ethnocultural models of identity may be likened to what Oscar Lewis referred to as a self-sustaining culture of poverty. Ethnoculture may come and go with the changing winds of time, but Ethnoculture and Ethnocultural differences are likely to remain for some time.

In a world characterized by ethnocultural stratification, a common experience of social contact and relation may be one of culture shock and the emergence of an increasingly chaotic multi-cultural continuum. The relations between workers and managers in a factory may be made problematic by the chronic condition of ethnocultural differences. One may be forced to work and interact daily among a whole company of people who are essential foreign from one's own ethnocultural orientation. Such interaction may either lead to greater tolerance and understanding of such difference, or else to aggravation of competitive tension and conflict. But never will the sense of identity or solidarity be complete in such a context.

In such a context, new inbetween groups who serve as mediators in potentially violent relations can be expected to emerge, groups who may be used as scapegoats.

It is an urgent challenge to contemporary anthropology to define and explicate the lineaments of this new, emergent kind of ethnocultural process. Within a global context of world development, Culture has acquired new parameters of significance and new models and categories of value and relevance. It can be expected that with growing human overpopulation on one hand, and increasing global environmental circumscription on the other, the increasing inequalities and disparities in resource acquisition and consumption will lead to greater tensions and conflicts. An emerging state of worldwide social super-criticality can be expected within the next generation. The precipitating episodes can be expected to have a strong ethnocultural connection. Structural inequalities and a status quo based on a hierarchy of resource control will demand an increasingly heavy hand in order to ensure stability, and will witness and increasing frequency of ethnocultural movements--extemporaneous revolutions of rising expectations and demands for equality. World peace based upon democratic principles of human rights, equality and common prosperity may prove to be anthropologically elusive and unrealistic in a world based upon the emphasis of ethnocultural differences.

In such a world, one is very likely to be raised in one or a mixture of several ethnocultural orientations only to find oneself spending the rest of one's life or rearing one's children in a completely different ethnocultural framework, only to feel a chronic sense of personal emptiness, anomie, confusion, disorientation or a sense of vital loss without knowing what it is or why it is so.

It remains up to anthropology to resolve the question of what kind of world it really is that we have created for ourselves.


Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/07/05