Penn State

Robert Schrauf - professor of applied linguistics, Penn State University Park

Book Title: Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference

Author: Frederik Barth

Book Description:

Barth's introduction to this little, edited volume (1969) was a game-changer in anthropology because he examined ethnic groups from the viewpoint of "the boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff that it encloses." At the time (and often today) cultures were seen as collections of  traits, invariant over time, cohering fully in each member of the culture. Years later, after extensive research on intracultural variation and an emphasis on sociocultural processes instead of timeless cultures, Barth seems to have won the day. But for me this volume is more important as an example of how anthropologists think. After Barth's introductory essay in which he lays out his theoretical approach to ethnicity, there follow seven ethnographic essays that probe how ethnic identities were constructed and maintained in various poly-ethnic societies  (Coastal Lappish in Northern Norway, the Fur and Bagarra in Sudan, mountaineers and lowlanders in Southern Norway, the Arsi and Galla in Southern Ethiopia, Chiapan groups in Central Mexico, groups of Pashtuns in Afghanistan and West Pakistan, and various groups in Laos). Each is a richly contextualized presentation of historically conditioned ethnic social practices and beliefs: all related back to the introductory theory. For me, the core of anthropology is fine-grained ethnographic attention to the "local" and sustained cross-cultural comparison, and Barth's volume has always been a delightful, paradigmatic example of how it's done (and a pleasure to read!).


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