University of Cambridge > > Centre of African Studies Occasional Talks > The Ordeal of Modernity: The Cultural Politics of Ethnicity

The Ordeal of Modernity: The Cultural Politics of Ethnicity

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  • UserProfessor Bruce Berman, Smuts Visiting Research Fellow and Queen’s University, Canada
  • ClockFriday 10 May 2013, 17:00-18:00
  • HouseLee Hall, Wolfson College.

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Contemporary research on the development of politicized ethnicity in Africa reveals it to be a modern construction in time and in reliance on modern intellectual and political resources for the interpretation and reimagining of ‘ancient’ cultures and communities in modern political contexts. This derived from African incorporation into the colonial state and market that generated growing material cleavages within and between ethnic communities and a politics of ‘moral ethnicity’ and ‘political tribalism’ over access to the political and economic resources of modernity. Tracing the European institutional and cultural links of colonialism we find the origins of political ethnicity in the conservative reaction to the dramatic cultural break of secular modernity and the development of the state and capitalist market that undermined the traditional moral economy of pre-modern agrarian societies. After the revolutionary upheavals of the mid-19th century, European nationalism was increasingly ethnicized or, more accurately, racialized through inventions of tradition combining primordial volkskultur with ‘racial science’ that glorified the ethno-nation, challenged revolutionary universalism and stigmatized the ethnic ‘other’ as a threat to the imagined national community. These cultural and institutional forces produced in Europe and Africa strikingly similar and yet often idiosyncratic constructions of class and ethnicity based on local crises of moral economy and hegemony. In the contemporary epoch of globalization and crisis these social forces generate a contentious global ethnic politics of indigeneity, migration, and autochthony that challenges nation-states and shapes the bitterest conflicts of our time.

Bruce Berman is the Smuts Visiting Research Fellow and Professor Emeritus of Political Studies and History at Queen’s University, Canada. From 2006 to 2012 he was Director and Principal Investigator of the Ethnicity and Democratic Governance Program at Queen’s (, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada that investigated the relationship between ethnicity, socio-cultural diversity and democratic development in many nations from all continents.

This talk is part of the Centre of African Studies Occasional Talks series.

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