Primordialism Research Paper Starter


Primordialism is the intrinsic sense of pride, dedication, and emotion that people extend toward their race/ethnicity, religion, language, history, and country of origin. Four primordial methods through which citizens of a country integrate into their homeland are described, including ethnic domination, cultural monism with equal citizenship, the unmelting melting pot, and "nations" within a nation-state, followed by a differentiation between "hard" and "soft" primordialism. The distinction between Marxist issues of "class" and primordial issues of "race" are characterized, along with past and current ramifications that relate to biracial identities. Finally, immigration issues, in conjunction with the roots of Latin ancestry, help unfold a primordial hypothesis.

Keywords Cultural Monism with Equal Citizenship; Ethnic Domination; Ethnicity; Hard Primordialism; "Nations" Within a Nation-State; Soft Primordialism; The Unmelting Melting Pot



Primordialism, a concept conceived by Edward Shils and expanded upon by Clifford Geertz, is commonly referred to in contemporary jargon as "ethnicity" (Gusfield, 1996). It is the bonding agent that adheres people to each other based on shared similarities such as race/ethnicity, religion, language, shared historical milestones, or inhabitation of communal land. For example, upon meeting, two Hispanic strangers that have never crossed paths are naturally oblivious about the various aspects surrounding each other's personality. The temperament, individual values, past influences and future aspirations that each possess remain a mystery to the other, though they nevertheless feel an instantaneous connection. Such endearment is founded on their primordial recognition of a shared ethnicity, perhaps based on comparable facial and bodily features that mirror their own, or that when their eyes happened to meet and the pressure to engage in trivial chitchat was demanded, their conversation was transmitted through a shared, native tongue. This scenario demonstrates the automatic sense of deep-seated affiliation and dedicated pride that often is felt in people when encountering those with similar foundational origins.

Geertz contributed greatly to the elaboration of primordialism in his 1963 book Old Societies and New States: The Quest for Modernity in Asia and Africa , in which he touched upon the concept of primordial ethnicity. In essence, he acknowledged that three basic assumptions are utilized in the presence of primordialism, the first of which assumes that primordialism is not a product of social learning tenets, or the initiation, maintenance, and influence of social ties, but is instead imbedded within people through instinctual, natural, and biological means. Geertz used the term "givens" to describe such basic cultural programming, which he said came from "immediate contiguity and kin connection mainly, but beyond them the givenness that stems from being born into a particular religious community, speaking a particular language, or even a dialect of a language, and following particular social practices" (as cited in Anderson, 2001, p. 211).

The second assumption postulates that primordialism is ineffable and overwhelming, in that it cannot be described in words, despite its powerful influence. Finally, the third assumption intimates that primordialism is affective, and naturally emits sentimentality, powerful emotions, and fervent levels of attachment.

Four Methods of Integration

A relevant expression of primordialism in contemporary, international affairs surrounds the context in which citizens integrate with their respective mother country. Gusfield (1996) offers four typologies to describe integration processes, which include:

• Ethnic domination,

• Cultural monism with equal citizenship,

• The unmelting melting pot, and

• "Nations" within a nation-state.

Corresponding with its namesake, ethnic domination can be found in nations that profess a solitary, prevailing race that serves as its official representation; other cultures that reside in such regions may be deemed unwelcome, inferior, or subjected to ridicule and antagonism. According to Gusfield (1996), examples of countries that operate under an ethnic domination regime include "the place of Jews in Poland, of Arabs in Israel, of Koreans in Japan, and of Blacks in the United States" (p. 54).

Countries that uphold principles consistent with cultural monism with equal citizenship value egalitarianism, and an even distribution of power is strewn among all residents. Ironically though, citizens are still expected to adhere to homogenized standardization in which the defiance of uniform ideals is forbidden; such countries promote both equality and conformity. For example, although France embraces religious autonomy, Arabic students that reside in France are banned from adorning themselves with burqas (Gusfield, 1996) despite the fact that such attire reflects Muslim dictates (Shirvani, Sreverny, Moorti, et al, 2002).

The basis for the unmelting melting pot corresponds with the historical cornerstone of the United States, whose mantra commonly utilizes the "melting pot" metaphor to underscore its fundamental values (Salinas, 1997). The U.S. has always promoted cultural pluralism (Vega, 2006), and historically, members of diverse nations would seek refuge from the hardships of their native land by flocking to the promise of Ellis Island (Maddern, 2008). This pattern has endured, and immigrants continuously suspend their former ethnic identities through the attainment of American citizenship and communally merge into one assimilated populace. After obtaining citizenship, recently inducted patrons collectively garner an "American" identity to ensure their newly formed status, but are still permitted to attach a semblance of their heritage to such a classification (e.g., Japanese-American, Mexican-American, etc.).

A Not-so-Tolerant System

Although such a tolerant system (i.e., the unmelting melting pot ) would theoretically combine the best of both worlds, the reality is that American culture contains many examples of unjust transactions between the melding of old and new identities. A recent example can be demonstrated through treatment extended toward the Muslim community in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 (Pereira, Carton & Bridis, et al, 2001). While The First Amendment of the United States Bill of Rights proclaims the right to religious freedom (World Almanac, 2006), thus alluding to consecrated autonomy and free will, Muslim adherents have faced tremendous scrutiny and disregard, which carry underlying allegations of terrorist involvement. Expressions of such indictments have manifested through heightened airport surveillance (Mansoor, 2002); newly formed university policies that monitor international students more ardently (Palmer, 2003); and more pronounced incidences of schoolyard harassment from both students and teachers (Boyden, 2002). Incidentally, such retaliation within the U.S. has ventured beyond the parameters of the Islamic faith into distinct religions such as Sikhism ("Sikhs fight," 2005).

"Nations" within a nation-state can be described by countries that contain primordial groups that exist sub-categorically amid a larger society, both of whom possess distinct governing principles. Quebec's 2006 conversion from a Canadian province to its distinct "nation-within-a-nation" standing (Wells, 2006) clearly illustrates this principle, even though many Canadian residents were not roused by such motion set forth by Prime Minister Steven Harper. Residential indifference, according to Aubin (2006), surrounded the fact that Quebecers had unofficially considered themselves as a separate regional entity, since they "already have a national assembly, a separate income-tax form, a national capital … national everything, including language. They have already voted in a law calling themselves a nation" (Aubin, 2006, p. 26). Hence, the sanction merely legalized a system that had long been established by its members.


Allahar (2001) distinguishes between two types of primordialism: "hard" or "soft." The hard version of primordialism can be described as concrete, established, immemorial, and incontrovertible. The sense of devotion most family units feel toward each other is indescribable and often operates under primordial, "blood is thicker than water" provisions. Similarly, the affectionate and proud manner in which people regard their ancestral family heritage, or the feelings of patriotism that citizens extol toward both their country of origin and their fellow compatriots, are classified as "hard" primordial examples. The logic behind such tendencies suggests that people innately gravitate to, or at least highly revere their "own kind."

Anomalies of this premise are demonstrated when people attempt to detach themselves from their ethnicities, a task that is convoluted and may be poorly received. An example of such a disassociation can be understood through a study conducted by Peterson-Lewis & Bratton (2004), in which they polled African American adolescents about their impression of non-Blacks who "act black," in the ways they posture themselves, behave, dress, and approach academics. Overall, the African American respondents deemed that "acting black" is negative. Additionally, Epstein (1994) highlights the reluctance and skepticism that those converting into Judaism face from the Jewish community, which raises the question surrounding whether people can divorce themselves from their primordial selves, or that which is considered objectively inherent, and acquiesce into new primordial territory.

Soft primordialism, on the other hand, is subjective, learned, and contextual. A person who is born in Australia, but reared in Italy might forge a strong sense of attachment toward his new home. From a hard primordial standpoint, levels of partiality should remain with his native, Australian roots; in taking a soft primordial stance, however, the appreciation that he acquires for his new Italian residency is equally legitimate. Fictive kin (Levi, 1990; MacRae, 1992; Muraco, 2006) is another approach toward elucidating soft primordialism, and relates to the families that are hand-selected via mutual interests, lifestyles, or through a forged sense of compassion, rather than the families that are established at birth. Although fictive familial relationships are not biological in nature, they tend to be grounded on sturdy foundational values, such as love, respect, and trust, and are therefore quite binding.

The convergence between soft and hard approaches to primordialism is further exemplified through the following vignette: Jennifer was raised by loving and supportive adoptive parents, who instilled many positive qualities throughout the course of her life, including unconditional love, patience, and generosity, of which she is deeply appreciative. Nevertheless, as an adult, Jennifer cannot extinguish a burning desire to pursue her...

(The entire section is 4910 words.)