Us and them

Us and them

Ryan Schram
ANTH 2700: Key debates in anthropology
Social Sciences Building 410 (A02)
Week of April 25, 2022 (Week 9)

Slides available at

Main reading: Malkki (1992)

No, where are you real-l-l-y from?

Have you ever been asked “Where are you from?” and told you gave the wrong answer?

The question feels like it is multiple choice:

Where are you from? Is it:
a) Antarctica
b) Belize
c) Cambodia
d) Denmark …
and on and on…

We believe we live in a mass society and each of us is an individual face in the crowd. In fact, many different forces are at work that seek to put everyone in different kinds of classificatory schemata.

Strangers in a strange land

An example of a very powerful classificatory schema is the nation.

In a very general sense, it is possible that every society ever has had some sense of nationalism, of ethnos as ancient Greeks might say.

All people make some kind of distinction between Us and Them.

A nationality has a specific meaning. Ideally your nationality is an endonym that also happens to be everyone else’s exonym for you.

The state of the nation

National identity is one among many ways that people have historically been classified, and it has several specific features. Members of a nation are assumed to

Nationalities in this sense are not natural or eternal. They emerge in history, and are usually associated with the centralization of state power.

Does nationalism actually require a Weberian state?

As we discussed in Week 8, one major debate in anthropology and other social sciences is over the nature of state power, and whether it is in fact centralized. We will take up this debate again in Week 10; here I am simply making the point that nationalism is often associated with the belief in a central authority.

Many theories of the nation assume that Weber’s theory of the state is correct, and that power is in fact centralized.

They argue that the formation of a national identity grows out of the rationalization of other areas of life, especially education and the economy.

A national policy of monolingualism is for instance a good way to administer a public education system for a mass population.

France, the exemplary nation-state

French language standardization concides with the formation of a French nation-state and supports the emerging egalitarian sense of French identity.

Does the French language have a single essence? As a matter of history, the answer is no.

Finland, late to nationhood

A quick history of Finland

The Swedish question

Who are “the Finnish people”? Many people of independent Finland speak only Swedish and live in communities where only Swedish is spoken (and many Swedish-speaking people have a lot of economic power).

Solution: dual national language policy. Both Finnish and Swedish have equal status as national languages.

Finland is the exception that proves the rule: It has two languages but each only exists in relation to the other, uniformly, throughout all of Finland.

The nation as an imagined community

Benedict Anderson argues that nationalism is defined by its newness and its break with past identities.

The limits of the imagined-community thesis

There are many imagined communities in one nation state

References and further reading

“50 Years Of Friendship Park.” 2021. Port of Entry. KPBS Public Media.

Anderson, Benedict Richard O’Gorman. (1983) 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Bashkow, Ira. 2006. The Meaning of Whitemen: Race and Modernity in the Orokaiva Cultural World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Choudhury, Samrat. 2021. “Borders Shift and People Move. So Who Are ‘Illegal Immigrants,’ Really?” The Wire, October 4, 2021.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1952. Race and History. Paris: UNESCO.

Malkki, Liisa. 1992. “National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity Among Scholars and Refugees.” Cultural Anthropology 7 (1): 24–44.

Murray, Hubert. 1925. Papua of to-day: Or an Australian colony in the making. London: P. S. King & Son.

“Take Border Issue Seriously.” 2022. Post Courier. February 15, 2022.