Understanding the Emergence of 'Ethnicity' and the Nation-State
The historical emergence of ethnicities and nation-states in Europe and in Africa is continually questioned and re-interpreted by historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and mass media. Depending on the perspective of the author and the intention of the narrative, ethnicity can be seen as a colonial construct or as an inherent cultural identity through which more similarities with other ethnicities may be noted than differences. However, because of political persuasion and imperialistic practices, especially in the modern era, ethnic emergence has been viewed as something disparate from nationhood. Bruce J. Berman, for example, quotes Samora Machel, "leader of one of the most radically modernist African regimes," as asserting, "For the nation to live, the tribe must die'" (Berman 306). This paper will analyze the play between ethnicity and nationhood, and ultimately show how we can compare the historical emergence of ethnicities and nation-states in Europe with those in Africa.
Carola Lentz observes that ethnicity is a problem that "cannot simply be explained away, neither with modernization theories about stubborn but dying relics of pre-modern mentalities nor neo-Marxist concepts of 'false consciousness'" (Lentz 303). To support her assertion, Lentz cites the "ethno-nationalist movements in post-Communist Eastern Europe" (303) and other exercises in ethnic cleansing that continue to this day. What Lentz implies is that ethnicity and tribalism are not characteristics specific to Africa but are, rather, illustrative of European culture as well. Indeed, the emergence of ethnicity in Europe and in Africa may be directly related to the emergence of nation-states (through power plays) precisely because of the use of the term ethnicity. As Lentz states, "Classifying the most diverse historical forms of social identity as 'ethnic' creates the scientifically questionable but politically useful impression that all ethnicities are basically the same and that ethnic identity is a natural trait of persons and social groups" (Lentz 305). In other words, usage of the term ethnicity has very observable political and social ramifications, but scientifically speaking it is too often used interchangeably with the term tribe.
The importance of understanding the impact of the term ethnicity helps illuminate the issue of ethnic and nation-state emergence. The term itself stems from the ancient Greek term ethnos, which Lentz notes "was above all a political category" (Lentz 305). Gradually, however, as more and more authors began to employ the use of the term, it began to take on different connotations. For example, the Greek philosopher (and tutor of Alexander) Aristotle employed the term when speaking of "both Greek and non-Greek segmentary societies"; and with the advent of Christianity, the term takes on a religious dimension when it "stands for 'heathen', and the adjective derived from it, ethnikos, for 'barbarian' and 'uncivilized'" (Lentz 305). Therefore, the concept of ethnic emergence (whether in Africa or in Europe) is dependent upon perspectives -- whether religious, political, social, or economic. Ethnicity, in other words, is a construct that can be used both to unite and separate. As Lentz observes, after all, ethnicity may "refer equally to Old Testament Canaanites, early medieval Normans and modern-day Basques and Sikhs" thereby making it "no great feat to claim" continuity between ethnicities of old and the nation-states of today (Lentz 305).
Yet, identifying the emergence of ethnicity and nationhood in Europe and in Africa is also dependent upon identifying the ongoing history of both continents. For example, Thomas Spear identifies the Yoruba ethnicity as a distinct creation of the Yoruba peoples themselves. However, despite the fact that "it took place before colonial conquest, and…was articulated by Yoruba linguists and historians who formulated a distinctive Yoruba language, culture, history, politics and ethnicity" (Spear 21), the Yoruba ethnicity continued to evolve according to a wide range of influences that came from halfway round the world.
Thus, Spear could state that ethnicity is "both a historical process…and a process of historical representation, as ethnic identity asserts 'continuity despite change, across contexts' and collective identity facilitates 'common action by shared past experiences'" (Spear 21). In this light, the understanding of how ethnicities and nation-states have emerged in Europe and in Africa is much clearer: the play between ethnicity and nationhood also is situated in a recognizable context. When Samora Machel of Mozambique attests that tribalism must disappear for nationhood to rear its head, one may argue that his meaning is…