Culture and political control: ethnic relations as power relations

  June 30, 2021   Read time 4 min
Culture and political control: ethnic relations as power relations
Contemporary elite approaches take their cue from the classics by seeing politics as the main arena of social action. However, unlike the classics they also attribute an important place to culture. Abner Cohen argues, more specifically, that social action is best understood by focusing on power relations and symbols.

By symbols, Cohen means ‘objects, concepts, or linguistic formations that stand ambiguously for a multiplicity of disparate meanings, evoke sentiments and emotions, and impel men to action’. While symbols are essential as building blocks in the development of personality and in dealing with the existential problems (i.e., in helping differentiate between good and evil and in comprehending key dichotomies such as life and death, fortune and misfortune and so on), their intrinsic ambiguity leaves them open to instrumentalization. Symbols possess indefinite and uncertain meanings but are, at the same time, indispensable for social action and communication.Collective action and,indeed,human societies more generally are inconceivable without the use of symbols.

However their indispensability on the one hand, and their elusiveness on the other, make symbols both objects of and for political action: people love and hate, kill or die, for and because of symbols. In other words, Cohen argues that symbols are ‘essentially bivocal, satisfying both existential and political ends’; they are ‘expressive’ and instrumental at the same time.‘The ceremonials of authority do not just reflect authority but create and recreate it.’ Symbolist (‘idealist, altruistic, non rational’) man is also political (‘shrewd, calculating, utilitarian’) man. Hence symbols are an integral part of power relations. Power is ‘an aspect of nearly all social relationships’ and refers ‘simply to relations of domination and subordination’.

He is critical of classical sociological traditions that analyse power as state power expressed in domination of one class over another (Marxism), or as one of the three dimensions of stratification along with status and class (Weberianism). Cohen finds the Marxist view too narrow and the Weberian too extensive in stating that power relations incorporate economic relations. There are only two dimensions that ‘pervade all social life’, power and symbolism, and, paraphrasing Marcuse, Cohen writes about ‘two dimensional man’. This strong link between symbolism and power relations is most clearly expressed in collective rituals and other social activities aimed at group mobilization.What is important here, according to Cohen, is the fact that most people are not aware of this ambiguity and bivocality of symbols. When they participate in a ritual of any kind they rarely see its political implications.This situation provides a space for intentional manipulation by political leaders. As he underlines,‘it is this ambiguity in their meanings that forges symbols into such powerful instruments in the hands of leaders and of groups in mystifying people for particularistic or universalistic or both purposes’. Symbols are effective weapons in power struggles because of their ‘irrationality’ and their connection to the real or imaginary objects and acts that deeply affect human feelings.

Since power and symbols permeate all of social life, they are also an integral part of ethnic relations. Cohen (1974a) treats ethnic groups as ‘informally organized interest groups’ who share a common culture and ‘who form a part of a larger population, interacting within the framework of a common social system like the state’ (1974a: 92). In operating with such a wide definition he extends the meaning of ethnicity to any politically conscious status group. Hence he labels London City stockbrokers as an ethnic group. According to Cohen, City stockbrokers are an interest group who share a ‘high degree of trust’ and similar values, ‘who speak the same language in the same accent, respect the same norms and are involved in a network of primary relationships that are governed by the same values and the same patterns of symbolic behavior’. Stockbrokers are compared to Nigerian Hausa traders living in Yoruba towns,and Cohen argues and documents how ‘city men are socio-culturally as distinct within British society as are the Hausa within Yoruba society’.

Since ethnic groups are analysed as interest groups and interest groups are, by definition, political associations, ethnicity is essentially seen as a political phenomenon.Thus the revitalization of ethnic attachments as experienced in Africa or the West has little to do with the protection of specific cultural traditions. On the contrary, ethnicity far from being a pre-modern and parochial feature is essentially a vehicle of modernization: the emphasis on ethnic group difference and symbols are dynamic instruments in the process of power-seeking.The new forms of ethnic symbolism are selectively borrowed from the past, and re-arranged to meet new social situations. Ethnic groups use and re-formulate cultural tradition as a resource in a power struggle. People do not kill each other because of the difference in their customs, but because these cultural differences are coupled with deep political divisions.

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