Postcoloniality and the Postcolony: Theories of the Global and the Local

Sverker Finnström, M.A., Dept. of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology, Uppsala University

Previously published in the series Working Papers in Cultural Anthropology, No. 7, 1997. © Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology, Uppsala University and the author.

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Table of Contents


Nowadays it is common among anthropologists to integrate aspects of history and colonialism in their ethnographic accounts. This can present us with a new, fruitful understanding regarding ethnicity and identity formation. However, this approach is not unchained from problems or implications. To highlight this ambiguity, the first section of my paper discusses colonial processes in relation to ethnicity and the concepts of primordialism and constructionalism. Ethnographic examples are taken from Africa as well as from India. Further, in the context of some eurocentric imaginations the second section discusses aspects of modernity and tradition, of global processes and local responses. Finally, with examples from Uganda the third section discusses what is sometimes described as the postcolonial situation par excellence in Africa: the colonial inheritance and the alienation of the state from the actual society.

The Past in the Present

After all, it is now widely accepted that colonial regimes and their successor states invented, promoted, and exploited ‘tribal’ differences and traditions. (Comaroff 1995:246)

By isolating this statement from its proper context, I want to highlight two aspects of contemporary theorisation. Firstly, the quotation stresses the imagined or invented aspects of group identity. Secondly, besides neglecting precolonial history, it stresses the abstract and universal hegemony of colonialism and imperialism as determinant of local traditions and identity formations. These two aspects brings us to the concept of ethnicity.

There has been a long debate among scholars, amateur as well as professional, whether ethnicity is to be understood as a primordial or as an instrumental phenomenon. Primordialism, in its most extreme form, presents social identity as immutable and cultures as fixed texts (Comaroff 1987; 1995; Eriksen 1993:55; Schoenbrun 1993:47). Social groups are said to exist in themselves, as social objects a priori (Amselle 1993:21). Ethnicity is then understood as a manifested essence, a ‘cultural thing.’

In the academic milieu, the idea of the bounded cultural entity can be related to the Weberian concept of ‘status groups’ (stande): the authoritative claim of a nation and the assertion of a right to sovereignty being two central aspects in defining the group (Arens and Karp 1989; Comaroff and Stern 1995:4f). These Weberian aspects of authoritative, centralised, and legitimate power are still very much emphasised by some anthropologists, for example by Gellner (1973a; 1973b; 1983; 1995) and, in some respects, Brass (1991). However, besides neglecting decentralised, informal and non-intentional but still influential dimensions of power, or powers, analyses in this vein often tend to be rather eurocentric, in emphasising the teleology of political and structural rationalisation (Clastres 1987; Comaroff 1995; Finnström 1996). Further, in addition to the problems in understanding the complexity of powers, Weberian approaches can easily turn into gross simplification, even essentialism or primordialism. This is when it becomes fruitful to nuance primordial aspects of social life with the understanding of ethnicity and group identity as imagined, under constant construction and reconstruction.

Unfortunately, essentialism is still common when it comes to media reports, maybe as a result of a search for simple and quick explanations (Amselle 1993:17; Richards 1996:xiii-xxix). In reporting from armed conflicts in Africa and Asia, ethnic minorities are said to fight each other; the homogeneity of A is fighting the homogeneity of B and vice versa. Regarding Africa, this picture is closely related to the idea of the ongoing and inevitable breakdown of the African states, because of these being seen as the result of arbitrary created colonies, invented by European colonisers. Accordingly, as Richards (1996:60) writes, it is widely held among external observers that political progress will depend on the affirmation of primordial units. The explanation equals processes of ethnicity with the conception of the homogeneous tribe. To be cynical, the only difference seems to be that the former classification is held as more politically correct. In the words of Richards:

According to outside assumptions, ‘proper’ rebellions in Africa should have ‘people’ (an ethnic identity), contiguous territory under unambiguous control of the rebels, and an announced programme that the world at large can understand. In short, they should be Biafra-like ‘mini-states’ in waiting. (Richards 1996:59f)

When this logic fails, the only alternative in media seems to be the very opposite: complex civil wars are reported to be nothing but pure barbarism, where chaos has replaced every aspect of culture and sociality, and total anarchy has replaced politics. As Richards (1996) has shown when it comes to the civil war of Sierra Leone, the media picture is a gross misinterpretation. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebellion as a political project is best understood as a rather coherent movement. However, it is not accurate to talk of a rebellion of a specific ethnic group. Rather, the movement seems to be "the product of the intellectual anger of an excluded educated elite" (Richards 1996:27; xxv). This must not be ignored if the essentialistic and teleological approach is to be replaced with a better, contextualised understanding. Important to point out, however, the argument is not to apologise the movement’s methods of brutal terror.

Referring to the writings of Anthony Giddens, Eriksen (1993:57) argues that social life is "fundamentally dual, comprising both agency and structure simultaneously; both freedom and constraint, if one prefers." Elsewhere he has defined ethnicity as "those aspects of social relationships and processes in which cultural difference is communicated" (Eriksen 1991:127). Another author presents us with a more general description: ethnicity is to be understood as the "articulation of internal and external networks of exchange" (Bayart 1993:216). Further, Jacobson-Widding (1983:13) points out two central processes through which identity is communicated and constructed. To summarise her argument, the first is represented in the feelings of sameness and unity, the second in distinctiveness. Thus, all these three scholars point towards the importance of investigating the specific situations behind specific identity formations.

The contextual or situational approach is sometimes launched as the instrumental or even realist approach, if the author wants to emphasise conscious strategies behind identity formations (Comaroff 1995:247). However, Eriksen (1993:55) points out the importance of incorporating non-instrumental and non-intentional aspects of ethnicity in the analysis. For example, one important factor seems to be the complexity of colonial rule.

During recent years the idea of ethnic groups, and even the tribe per se, as colonial constructions has been launched by many anthropologists (Ranger 1996). In deconstructing the primordial essentialism, this kind of analyses emphasise the combination of historical and constructionist elements. For example, Brandström (1986) has shown how the Sukuma of Tanzania was labelled and categorised as a bounded and united tribe during the colonial years. As Brandström (1986:4) writes, because of colonial rule "rather fluid social entities," as the Sukuma, "were given a more defined identity under the label of tribe." This labelling was functioning in multiple ways. Firstly, the Sukuma were registered as a single tribe in the documents of the colonial administration. Secondly, the missionaries launched standardised versions of a huge variety of Sukuma dialects through the translation of the Bible and other religious texts. These standardised versions were taught in missionary schools, and to European foreigners and other non-Sukuma speakers. In a long-term perspective such processes tended to uniform the Sukuma language (cf. Schoenbrun 1993:55; Davidson 1994:71f).

As highlighted by Allen (1991), similar processes can be observed in Acholiland, northern Uganda. The Catholic mission has presented the local population with a vernacular version of the Bible. Even further, as a consequence of this publication there has been a large production of other vernacular texts dealing with Acholi history and cosmology, in which educated Acholi writers have played an important part along with the missionaries. As a consequence a huge variety of localised Acholi myths and histories have been systematised and standardised, now with the capacity of promoting a higher degree of cultural coherence all through Acholiland (Allen 1991).

A quotation from Bayart can thus be said to pinpoint a common trend in Africa, not only limited to the Acholi or the Sukuma:

Most situations where the structuring of the contemporary political arena seems to be enunciated in terms of ethnicity relate to identities which did not exist a century ago or, at least, were then not as clearly defined. (Bayart 1993:51; italics mine)

An important aspect of this historical process is that educated elite groups and local nationalists tended to overlook the actual heterogeneity of their lived surroundings. As Audrey Richards (1969:9) observes, the same can be said of visiting Europeans. Sometimes this process of homogenisation was clearly intentional, as in the early years of anti-colonial movements, nationalism, and pan-Africanism when the cultural, social, historical plurality was neglected in the name of a greater cause.

The history of Rwanda and Burundi presents us with other processes of ethnification, strengthened as a consequence of German and Belgian colonialism. The Rwanda and Burundi cases clearly remove the ‘innocence’ of European presence, if compared with the missionary work in Sukumaland or Acholiland. As elsewhere in East Africa, in Rwanda and Burundi there are both agriculturists and pastoralists living in the same surroundings, talking the same language. Historically they share the same social world to a large extend, even though the social organisation is "extremely hierarchical," almost caste-like (Malkki 1995:24; see also Maquet 1961). In many aspects pastoralist Tutsis are seen as superior over agriculturalist Hutus; Tutsis are presented as nobles, Hutus as commoners. Important to note, this is an indigenous cultural model, in many aspects shared both by Tutsis and Hutus (see, for example, Malkki 1995:79f, 102f, 121).

The indigenous model of nobles and commoners was soon transferred to scholarly writing. Malkki (1995:68; chapter 1), Kuklick (1984:70f), and others before them have characterised the theoretical model resulting from this as the ‘Hamitic hypothesis.’ [1] The hypothesis can be illustrated with early twentieth century writings, like Roscoe’s (1923) account on the Bunyoro kingdom of Uganda. He argues that the Bahuma, the "free-born pastoralists of Negro-Hamitic origin," are more intelligent than the agricultural Bahera, the "Negro serfs of the Bahuma." In the eyes of Roscoe the division of Arabic or Mediterranean Africa versus Black Africa is obvious, since the "Negro-Hamitic Bahuma" are said to originate from the north, having conquered the "Negro aborigines." Roscoe further assumes that the mixing and intermarriages of the two groups have introduced "a shorter and coarser type, possibly not less robust, but certainly less refined and," he imagines, "less intelligent" (Roscoe 1923:13). Thus admirable factors such as nobility, political centralisation and autocratic kingship is wrongly understood by scholars as inherent, even racially bounded (Southall 1989:196). In this way a local cultural model of inequality became legitimised by Western scholarship. In the eyes of authors like Fanon (1963), this legitimacy is nothing but a racial division of a Black Africa versus a White Africa, the latter more akin to European civilisation.

When distributing identity cards in Rwanda, the Belgian colonisers quite simply defined people with more than ten heads of cattle as Tutsi. Accordingly, owners of a lesser amount of cattle were registered as Hutus (Bjuremalm 1997). A more unfortunate combination of vernacular socio-political structures and colonial ignorance is hard to find. As Bjuremalm (1997) writes, the colonial policy was nothing but the triggering of a social bomb. Today we can only draw attention to how these registers were systematically used in the mass killings of 1994 in Rwanda. The legitimacy of the Hamitic hypothesis could not be more brutally expressed. As the hypothesis illustrates, history is written in the present and most often expresses present concerns (cf. Eriksen 1993:92).

Today the task of social science is to deconstruct the fixation of this essentially racist epistemology (Schoenbrun 1993:47). This is done not by further specifying the identity implied by the terms Tutsi and Hutu. On the contrary, variability must be traced in detail through time and locality. By listening to the plurality of local and subaltern voices the stereotypes of fixed categories, dominant structures and established cosmologies become less fixed: "Local voices retool the semantics of ethnicity by being specific. Their specificity defeats the manipulation of ethnicity, itself a nexus for power. Failing to hear the subaltern voices, still newer forms of oppression may masquerade as ‘ethnic,’ and be promulgated as such by intellectuals." (Schoenbrun 1993:48). Consequently, when scholars include historical processes in the description of the local politics and "mythico-histories," to use a term of Malkki (1995), it is important not to limit the understanding to a single, dominant or fixed version.

It seems important to reconsider historical and colonial processes, a central theme in the well-known thesis of Orientalism launched by Edward Said (1978; 1993). Not surprisingly, therefore, in a speech originally addressed to the American Anthropological Association, Said (1989) praises anthropologists like Richard Fox, whose account on the Sikhs of Punjab, north-western India, is based on data from the colonial era (Fox 1985). As Fox’s account illustrates, it is fruitful to investigate colonial and imperialistic processes, when we are to understand the history of local formations and changes of society and culture. Thus I agree with Said’s pointing out of the importance of an account as that of Fox. The title of the book, Lions of the Punjab: Culture in the Making, summarises Fox’s ambition to describe a culture in the making. Even more, he is arguing that culture is constantly in the making (see, for example, Fox 1985:13, 138).

As argued by Mamdani (1996:185), the concept of culture or ethnicity in the making can be useful if we are to avoid the pitfalls of the more static concepts of culture (or ethnicity) as invented or imagined. However, when it comes to Fox (1985), I am in part sceptical about how this cultural making is described. Even though the colonial era is interestingly and very deeply analysed, the book cannot be read as a description of a culture "constantly in the making," or in a "constant state of becoming," because of Fox limiting his analysis more or less to a single colonial policy, that of recruiting Khalsa Sikhs, more precisely Singhs, to the British army.[2] He further argues that Sikh identity, or rather Singh identity, was a product of colonialism. This is a simplification, since neither the history nor the traditions of the Sikhs can be reduced to the single dominant tradition of Khalsa Sikhism and its male Singhs, neither in pre-colonial times nor in post-colonial times (McLeod 1989:78ff; Oberoi 1994). Unfortunately Fox writes nothing about the post-colonial processes, maybe the most violent and problematic era in the history of the Sikhs. As Fox’s book is dealing with the colonial times, the postcolonial problems were perhaps beyond its scope. However, when Fox describes the complexity of Sikh history and cultural making with reference to a quite limited time-frame only, he is implicitly ignoring the actual heterogeneity present all through Sikh history. This heterogeneity is present in today’s cultural making also, since the Sikhs are by no means a colonial fabrication, or a mere product of the British. As illustrated by Fox’s account, the focus on colonialism can become problematic, if it implicitly reduces local actors to passive objects of imposed change. The heterogeneity of local traditions and ongoing identity formations is homogeneously understood. The stereotypes of the dominant traditions and fixed categories are fortified: Sikhs as Singhs. Culture in the making then equals the invention of culture.

Ranger (1996) emphasises the importance of not over-stressing the contrast between the colonial and the post-colonial political agencies. I would add that the same must be observed when we are comparing elements of tradition in pre-colonial and colonial times. As anthropologists of the West, we must not limit our understanding of local history and tradition to that of Western presence and Western hegemony. As Ovesen (1983) has shown when it comes to the Nuristani and the Pashai of today’s Afghanistan, written history is most often biased by Western scholars, and sometimes this bias turns into gross misinterpretation.


1. Kuklick (1984:70) sees C. G. Seligman (1930) as the most persistent anthropologist when it comes to keeping the Hamitic hypothesis alive in scholarly writing.

2. Singh means Lion in English. This is the name male Sikhs take as their second name when initiated in the Khalsa. The Khalsa is the largest religious branch among the Sikhs. Therefore Fox's title, Lions of the Punjab. Khalsa-initiated women, on the other hand, take the name Kaur, Princess. Strangely enough, Fox does not mention the name of Kaur in his account, instead including the women as Singhs (Fox 1985:2).


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