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Who is Who in the Culturelink Team

Culturelink review, Special Issue 1994 - imprint - archive

Identity, Stratification, Ethnicity and 'New Societies'

Siniša Malešević holds B.A. in sociology from the University of Zagreb. He spent a year as a student in New Bern, North Carolina, USA. His research interests include sociology of ethnic relations, cultural anthropology, and epistemology. He is currently at Central European University, Prague, Czech Republic, where he is working on his M.A. thesis on the theories of ethnic relations. He published several articles in the field of sociology of ethnic relations. He is also the author of the Culturelink study on the Changes in the Status and Functioning of Cultural Centres: a study of Central and Eastern European countries in transition.


With the collapse of the old political order, disintegration of federal institutional structures, and dissolution of inter-republic systems of exchange, patronage, and outright assistance, many Eastern and Central European countries found themselves in a state of total economic and social ruin. The scarce available social and economic statistics show that in almost all of the new states (with the possible exception of the Czech Republic and Slovenia) unemployment is on the increase, production is declining, the buying power is diminishing, and the living standards and quality of life show a downward trend.

The previously suppressed ethnic consciousness has now been awakened and is being instrumentalized for political ends (Gellner, 1986). The ruling elites have thus found a (needless to say, fictitious) social interest behind which they stand and which enables them to remain in power undisturbed and unchallenged. The loser syndrome is a perfect background on which to project Herderian ideas, chauvinism, self-centredness, autarky, xenophobia, etc. Provoking regional wars (former Yugoslavia, Armenia- Azerbaijan, Georgia, etc.) is just one mechanism (together with various combinations of circumstances leading to wars) which is employed to maintain the ruling elites in power.

We now come to the machinery of ethnomobilization and the question why, and when, people manifest such a powerful sense of ethnic identification.

Following the two dominant theoretical orientations in the contemporary sociology of ethnic relations, the situationist and the primordialist,1 we might explain this phenomenon either as a consequence of irrational impulses that dominate the collective life of traditional, premodern societies, which many of these societies indeed are (as claimed by primordialists such as Isaacs 1976, Khlief, 1982, etc.); alternatively, in accordance with the situationist interpretation (cf. Hechter 1987, Okamura 1981, etc.), we might say that ethnic identity is in fact a form of rational reaction to social pressures and that manifestations of strong ethnic ties can be viewed as a rational strategy for the realization of different social, political, economic, and other, primarily individual, goals and objectives.

Though we have here two opposed theoretical positions, it seems that - considering different regions and different cultural and civilizational circles in which these societies live, as well as the relations between the centre and the periphery - the two approaches are valid as alternatives, depending on the region.2

The rational strategy for the manifestation of ethnicity is more probable in 'modern', urban, individualized and sophisticated, societies, in which individuals have had a long experience of group membership on the basis of utilitarian interest. An individual agrees to identify himself with the ethnic collective, or any other group for that matter, when this facilitates the realization of a particular individual goal, or when group membership 'reduces the cost' of realization of such a goal.

In the so-called peripheral, 'premodern' societies, on the other hand, an individual is perceived in the first place as a member of a collective. This is where he/she is socialized, made aware of the sanctions for non-group/anti- group behaviour, and finally, through internalization, 'persuaded' of the rightness of every move made by the collective.

Starting from these ideal-type patterns, we might note that in the case of the 'newly emergent' societies specific regional and subregional areas can be identified in which both explanations are valid. Of course, this is not to say that state borders stand in any kind of relationship to the dominant cultural-axiological patterns, since cultural boundaries, like social boundaries, are quite fluid and temporal.

In this sense, all that one could state would be that the situationist interpretation would probably better explain manifestations of powerful ethnic identifications in the urban environments of most of these societies, while the primordialist position would be better able to deal with the rural 'premodern pockets' of Armenia, Azerbaijan, the Balkan countries, etc.

The importance and degree of ethnic identification can be viewed also from the perspective of social fragmentation, a process that characterizes the contemporary world societies.

Unlike segmentation, a process based, according to Durkheim (1972), on the 'mechanical solidarity' of the so-called traditional communities in which an individual is defined and recognized solely as a part of the collective, and is as such unconditionally solidary with the collective, fragmentation is a process in which individuals and groups - owing to the highly developed division of labour - become greatly interdependent, while the intensity of the links between them tends to decline.

What we have here are two opposite processes - dominating fragmentation, which shifts and multiplies boundaries among groups, constantly reducing their size and increasing their number, and segmentation (whose model is the clan organization of society), where - owing to the absence of a developed division of labour - social ties among individuals are very strong (usually in kinship groups). On the symbolic level, this is represented by the religious cult and ritual norms which serve to maintain the collective identity.

While segmentation brings people within a group closer together, fragmentation strengthens the ties between groups, while weakening those within groups (Katunaric 1988: 15).

Following Durkheim (1972) and Katunaric (1988), one observes both of these processes proceeding in parallel in most of these societies - segmentation (especially in the Balkan and Central Asian countries), which was partly slowed down, or more precisely, restructured, during the socialist rule, and fragmentation, which is a general characteristic of the (post)modern time and space.

The modernist analysis would probably characterize the process of segmentation in some of the 'new' societies as a belated 'traditionalist reaction' of the kind found only in niches of premodernity in the last stages of disintegration of the segmentary communities.

It seems closer to the truth, however, to say that there are two processes at work here. First, there is the process of counter-reaction to the situation of 'furious' fragmentation, with individuals fearful of losing 'firm ground under their feet' (i.e., losing their identities) and therefore turning to the 'maternal warmth of prejudice' (Finkielkraut 1992: 29), common kinship, and ethnic roots (thus achieving collective identification). On the other hand, we find these same individuals displaying in-group behaviour as the most rational possible choice in a situation of crumbling of segmentary communities, widespread individualization, interest-led positioning, and classical conformism.

An extreme version of this situation is easily observed in the new countries caught in a war (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Georgia), where verbal expressions of superpatriotism and collective narcissism have become the main feature of social life and the basic precondition of any form of social activity. Similar processes can be observed also in other newly emergent states.


  1. Primordialism and situationism are two poles of a single dimension, which 'clash' over the issue of ethnic identity in terms of rational vs. irrational. While the primordialists view ethnicity more or less as 'wrong consciousness' or 'ideology' (Liebkind 1989: 28), or as an irrational attachment to 'elements' such as kinship, territory or religion (McKay 1982), the situationists (especially those who advocate the theories of competition and rational choice) claim that ethnicity is in the first place a rational strategy employed by individuals to realize their 'chances in life'.
  2. This is not to be taken as our support for theoretical (or methodological) eclecticism in social sciences. We merely recognize the possible parallel existence of more than one type of explanation, following G. Devereux's claim that any phenomenon which can be explained in one way can also be explained in other, equally satisfactory, ways (Devereux 1990: 122).


  1. Devereux, G. (1990). Komplementaristička etnopsihoanaliza. Zagreb: August Cesarec.
  2. Finkielkraut, A. (1992). Poraz mišljenja. Zagreb: Naprijed.
  3. Gellner, E. (1986). Nation, Culture, Identity. Oxford: Basil Blackswell.
  4. Katunarić, V. (1988). Dioba društva - Socijalna fragmentacija u američkom, sovjetskom i jugoslavenskom društvu. Zagreb: Sociološko društvo Hrvatske.
  5. Liebkind, K. (1989). Conceptual Approaches to Ethnic Identity. In: Liebkind, K. (ed.): New Identities in Europe. Vermont: Gower Publishing Company.