Understanding Ethnic Identity the Instrumentalist Way: A Critical Analysis


[About the paper: This paper is an attempt to critically examine and analyse how ethnic identity is understood by the instrumentalist scholars. The basic readings selected for the purpose here are: Paul Brass’s first three chapters of Ethnicity and Nationalism: Theory and Comparison (1991), Eric Hobsbawm’s introduction to The Invention of Tradition (1992) and Aparna Rao’s article, The many sources of identity: an example of changing affiliations in rural Jammu and Kashmir (1999). However, the conceptual development in defining what ethnicity and ethnic identity signify may be inclusive of the experiences of the author as well as the inputs from discussions inside and outside of the classroom.]

Keywords: ethnicity, ethnic identity, elites, circumstantial, instrumentalists.

Ethnic identity is socially and politically constructed. There is nothing identifiable about any ethnic category as being ‘given’ but ethnic identity as such is created, constructed, and invented. The symbols of recognition of an ethnic identity that has become a part of our knowledge and which has been claimed to be rooted in the ‘remotest antiquity’ are nothing but the “creations of elites, who draw upon, distort and sometimes fabricate materials from the cultures of the groups they wish to represent in order to protect their well-being or existence or to gain political and economic advantage for their groups as well as for themselves.”

This is what the ‘instrumentalists’ or ‘constructionists’ view and understand ethnic identity and what the views of this author subscribe to as well. The academic discourses in the social sciences that support the views that traditions are invented and social realities constructed reinforce the validity of this understanding of ethnic identity.

Ethnicity and Ethnic Identity

‘Ethnicity is a sense of ethnic identity consisting of the subjective, symbolic or emblematic use by a group of people of any aspect of culture in order to create internal cohesion and differentiate themselves from other groups.’ This is an ideal definition of ethnicity that Brass wanted to frame after quoting it from De Vos and altering it to make it fit to his definition. This definition, Brass considers, will be most appropriate since it includes the objective attributes, the subjective feelings and the behavioural aspects of defining an ethnic group.

The obvious definition of ethnic identity for Brass is then a construct by the elites. The definition is more lucid when he describes the formation of ethnic identity. Brass sees the formation of ethnic identity “as a process created in the dynamics of elite competition within the boundaries determined by political and economic realities.”

The term elite Paul Brass uses in his work “refers to influential subgroups within ethnic groups and classes.”

The Construction of Ethnic Identity: A Critical Analysis

How and in what manner is ethnic identity constructed? Why is it being constructed? Who constructs it? The answers to these questions will make our understanding of ethnic identity clearer.

“[A]ll invented traditions, so far as possible, use history as a legitimator of action and cement of group cohesion,” Hobsbawm remarks by citing historical examples in his introduction to the influential work, The Invention of Tradition. He continues to say that “the history which became part of the fund of knowledge or the ideology of nation, state or movement is not what has actually been preserved in popular memory, but what has been selected, written, pictured, popularized and institutionalized by those whose function it is to do so.”

What Hobsbawm has stated here is the clear reflection of how ‘ethnic’ groups manipulate and distort or selectively use certain part of their culture according to circumstances in order to create and/or construct an ethnic identity. They ‘invent’ traditions and this acts as an instrument to realise their goal which may include the construction of a separate ethnic identity, or its transformation into nationalism, or mere access to political and economic gains.

In the similar fashion, Paul Brass posits his argument that ethnic identity arises out of elite competition. This competition is basically between the leaderships of centralising states and elites from non-dominant ethnic groups. On how the elites try to create their ethnic identity, Brass says:

In this process of creating an ethnic group identity, the elites select “particular dialects or religious practices or styles of dress or historical symbols from a variety of available alternatives.”

The objective existence of inequality or subjective perception of inequality and the competition for access to economic resources are being cited as major reasons for politicization of ethnicity and the creation of ethnic identity.

Paul Brass sees that ethnicity and nationalism are associated and interlinked and both are socially and politically constructed. Yet, he argues that “the process of ethnic identity formation and its transformation into nationalism is reversible……because of both the dynamics of external competition and the internal divisions and contradictions which exist within all groups of people….”

These arguments that ethnic identity is socially and politically constructed are further substantiated in Aparna Rao’s case study of Bakkarwal and Gujar communities of Jammu and Kashmir.

In her study, Rao highlighted the “construction, maintenance and manipulation of identity,” and “the context specific uses of religion, language and so on to include as much as to exclude in various economic and political settings.”

Rao argues that “[t]he dynamics of ‘ethnic’ identity has been manipulated and regulated by perceived cleavages and concordances at various levels of economic, social, religious, linguistic and other cultural affiliation.” She is quick to add the political nature of ethnic identity formation when she says that “one cannot talk of group identity without also talking of politics.”

The analysis Rao has presented is convincing. As it was pointed out by Brass, Rao also takes into account the important role that is played by the economic resources and how the different levels of accessibility among ‘groups’ construct and deconstruct ethnic identity. She also points out the possibility where individual opportunism and ambition at various levels of the polity have led to the manipulation of ‘cultural differences’ and collective sentiments for political ends. 

Towards Conclusion

What runs similar in all the above three works is that ethnic identity is the construction of elites in a political and economic environment where they compete between them for greater access to resources; that such construction of ethnic identity is more so done by the non-dominating elites; that the elites manipulate or selectively use religion, language, symbols etc. to construct an ethnic identity; and that the selective use of such particular symbols or themes are circumstantial and adjustable.

From this observation we can convincingly put what is central to instrumentalist understanding of ethnic identity is the assumption that ethnic identities vary across space and change across time. The ethnic groups themselves are the ones who take active part in the construction, reconstruction and remodelling of identities. They interpret and reinterpret their past and try to redefine and give it a new meaning to serve their purpose. And, all these actions are circumstantial to the existing politico-economic environment.

However, one may raise few questions: does this circumstantialist approach adopted by instrumentalists a perfected understanding of ethnic identity? Are constructed identities completely devoid of at least some set of primordial moorings?

These are some of the questions that has come up during the process of writing this paper and answering to them will take a great deal of further research and reading but for which there is space and time constraints.

In spite of these unanswered questions and without denying the possibility of finding a solution of incorporating primordial elements in the instrumentalist understanding of ethnicity and ethnic identity, it can be rationally put that ethnicity and ethnic identity as understood by instrumentalist is so far most acceptable and appeals to reason.


Brass, Paul. Ethnicity and Nationalism: Theory and Comparison. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1991.

Hobsbawm, Eric. Introduction to The Invention of Tradition, by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, 1-14. London: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Rao, Aparna. “The many sources of identity: an example of changing affiliations in rural Jammu and Kashmir.” Ethnic and Race Studies 22:1 (1999): 56-91. Accessed August 29, 2014. doi: 10.1080/014198799329594.

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