Review Essay: Primordialism versus Constructivism


Isaacs, Harold. Idols of the Tribe. New York : Harper & Row, 1975.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. Revised ed. London & New York: Verso, 1991.

Winichakul, Thonchai. Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

To address questions of cultural pluralism and to advance the effort to manage and order the contemporary ethnicities and identities, it is necessary to begin with a perspective, a base with which to define and explain the groups that appear. For most, it is a debate between three interactive dimensions: primordial, instrumental and constructed. These fluid and fixed approaches begin with "deep emotional attachments to the group, supplying an internal gyroscope and cognitive map through which the social world is perceived, and historicizes selfhood in a web of primordial cultural meanings. In everyday political and social interaction, ethnicity often appears in an instrumental guise, as a group weapon in the pursuit of material advantage; thus its activation is contingent, situational and circumstantial. Ultimately, all identities are socially constructed, a collective product of the human imagination". Beyond the instrumental affiliation for political and personal advancement, primordialism and constructivism include emotional attachment and societal affiliation, which attempt to explain the links and bonds that are evident in the unity of group identities. 

The concept of primordialism then, can be described by Geertz, as:

One that stems from the 'givens' or, more precisely, as culture is inevitably involved in such matters, the assumed 'givens' of social existence: immediate continguity 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. These congruities of blood, speech, custom and so on, are seen to have an ineffable, and at times overpowering coerciveness in and of themselves (Geertz 1973, p. 259).

Harold Isaacs, working within this primordialist approach as a social psychologist emphasizes these shared traits and histories which creates bonds between individuals, but adds the dimension of origins to his definition. In Idols of the Tribe, Isaacs attempts to explain the reasons why people seek out these attachments, why individuals are drawn to form groups, and why these particulars of identification develop meaning, to become "the basic group identity." According to Isaacs, it is the intrinsic fear of 'aloneness,' the flight from insecurity which causes "a great clustering into separatenesses that will, it is thought, improve, assure, or extend each group's power or place, or keep it safe or safer from the power, threat, or hostility of others." In the contemporary environment, the post-imperial, post-colonial, and basically post-ideological dilution of previous world order has created an increasing interdependence and globalization. As the system universalizes in politics, science, technology, resources and communications, human society is fragmenting into smaller and smaller units. Isaacs sees the current phenomenon of refragmentation and retribalization as threatening the scope of the future, as humans become less and less able to live separately. The hopes that conflict and differences will be flattened out in the future under the pressures of modernization, or controlled by the power of civilizing missions, or erased as we advance beyond our former ignorance through knowledge and enlightenment, or that revolution would do away with exploitation and nations would be replaced by a socialist world order are in vain. Isaacs claims that tribal separatenesses are not just an incidental feature of human evolution, about to dissolve, or even be indefinitely contained. The search, then to create a more humane humanity, must realize distinctiveness and the division of the we-they system. The question of real conflict is not the difference itself, but the actuality of who is ruling whom, and how. The answer then, for an increasingly human existence is to create new institutions, new pluralisms, a new power system which could cope with the conditions of the paradox of globalization and fragmentation which confronts us.

To explain the persistence and resonance of group associations, Isaacs relates the psychoanalysis of "the basic group identity." His neo-Freudianism is based on the link between the individual and the group, which produces the "quality and power of man's tribal solidarity, his overwhelming urge to belong, to identify himself with tribe or nation and above all with his system of beliefs." Beyond Freud's analysis of individual development according to context sources and social setting, Isaacs is concerned with the idea of man as a member. Isaacs gives specificity to Erik Erikson's idea that community shapes individual development, by defining the elements that make up the ethnic or the "basic group identity": physical characteristics, names and language, history and origins, religion, and nationality. These shared characteristics create a "deep commonality known only to those who shared in it, and only expressible in words more mythical than conceptual". Identity is powerful not only in consciousness of the individual, but also in the establishment of the identity of the core, of the communal culture. Isaacs is not a 'pure primordialist' relying solely on shared origins as the unit of linkage, but realizes that while the identities are fixed and durable, they are not immutable or static. Diversity is inherent, and in the changing world environment, identities will continue to be reproduced and internalized, given meaning and primary power, in the never-ending escape of isolation. The key feature of the group identity collectivity is the overwhelming desire to avoid 'moral aloneness' from "lack of relatedness to values, symbols, patterns," and to belong. The security of primary bonds and their particular coercive powers consists of the assumed givens of social existence, which provide continuity and connection, and establish bonds of "some unaccountable absolute import attributed to the very tie itself." The functions that identity performs and secures to the individual, in its linkage to the group, in meeting the needs of connection and belonging, explain the powerful persistence of primordial affinities and the lasting power of attachments.

The benefits of this approach are apparent in its very essence, in the value that is placed into these identities, the emotional attachments and power that those import. Where instrumentalism lacks a unifying principle in the face of conditions adverse to the identity, primordialism incorporates ethnic allegiance, according to shared history, language, environment, and myths. More than describing situations of conflict, primordialism also incorporates cooperation and the subliminal, subconscious, instinctive elements which are built-in and can be called upon at any moment, to become relevant in certain contexts. In addition, Isaacs' approach explains origins and the formation of identity, from where the linkages emerge, which determines, in part, their relevance.

However, this approach has limits, beginning with the question of authenticity. If belonging is a matter of believing to be a part, and sharing the basic elements, is the identity inauthentic if previous generations belong to the opposite? And is it actually a false consciousness, to be socialized into an identity, to share traits of the community based on location and context, and the individual's acceptance of that status? And even as Isaacs attempts to explain the features which create the identity, he still can not explain the "genesis of its phenomena, nor the relation between ethnic attachments and the ongoing social experiences of ethnic members". The social psychologist analysis does not explain choice about which and who, and why it matters over time. Even Isaacs admits the dynamic and changing nature of identity, but the primordialist can not account for the particular transformations, the actualities of how changes occur. The advancement of the work of Freud and Isaacs over the classical primordialists is the recognition of "an innate need and tendency to form bonds but that the bond itself is not a biological given. It must still be formed, and it must be formed in social interaction."

Benedict Anderson takes the constructivist approach in his work, Imagined Communities. Constructivism assumes that identities vary across space and times, due to societal condition and change the circumstances that groups encounter, as well as the group's own "active involvement in the construction and reconstruction of identities, negotiating boundaries, asserting meanings, interpreting their own pasts, resisting the impositions of the present, and claiming the future." In retaining the insights of primordialism and the validity of circumstantialism, contructivism emphasizes our actions and how we interpret our environment. The mutability of identity does not deprive it of power. The force of ethnicity lies in the significance we attach, to our own identities and to the identities of others. From the evolution of the nation, based on notions of kinship and religion, nationalism has maintained is compelling power to derive emotional legitimacy and simultaneously transform to merge with political and ideological formations in a variety of social terrains. Constructivism can be used to explain social change and the power and political force of nationalism because it incorporates their dynamic nature, the fluidity of identity, but not denying its origins and real existence. Anderson defines the nation as "an imagined political community and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign" (p.6). The term 'imagined' is used not to falsify the entity as fabricated, but to express the link of each member, who will never know most other members, yet is related to them through a shared culture, history, and kinship, and the belief of these members create a community. The rise of the nation began with conditions in Europe, when the primacy of print technology and capitalism spread a common language and created the possibility of a new form of imagined community, of the nation as inherently limited but with no distinct political boundaries. The waning cultural system of religion and dynastic realms were frames of reference against which nationalism appeared, and their decline left a void, a need for a source of stability and continuity. Addressing the ultimate fears and concerns of immortality, the nation provided an alternate view, a secular transformation of security and meaning, in the endless past of history and the limitless future, to provide an eternity. These conditions provided the impetus for the actual origination of nationalism, in the New World. According to Anderson, the new consciousness displayed in the Americas and the nationalism produced by the local state was based on a parallelism with the Old World, and inspired the successive second generation nationalist movements in Europe. These first emerging states in the Americas were distinctive in that they were not based on language or the increasing political activism and consciousness of the lower classes. Rather, the conflict of the creole functionaries and their aristocratic European overlords, and printmen and newspaper career structures were central in creating Republics which were non-dynastic and based on a revolutionary nationalism. This model of the nation set an example for the later European nationalist movements, based on the ideological and political importance of print-language, as well as the piracy of the existing modes and their altercations to widely different practices. Because the nation-state was based on a collectivity of language speakers, the European movement was much more populist in nature, based on the conceptual model used for its installation. In the third stage of the process, the evolution of the nation produced a legitimacy problem for the dynasties, which lacked territorial, cultural, and political cohesiveness. In the age of "official nationalism," the monarchs tried to impose a unifying nationalism over a vast empire. The positive result of this attempt at coopting nationalism was the decrease of identifications still based on sacrality and sheer antiquity, but the overall effect was to inspire reactive nationalisms and their claims for self-determination.

In this approach, nationalism is an outcome of human configurations of geographical and political interests and talents, which substituted new visions of secular glory for older religious and dynastic ambitions. The progress of national evolution continues with "the process of reading nationalism genealogically as the expression of an historical tradition of serial continuity." As the transition to the 'new' continues, these profound changes in consciousness bring with them amnesias of specific historical circumstances, out of which develop narratives, which simultaneously records a certain or apparent continuity and emphasizes its loss from memory. From this narration which replaces remembrance, comes identity, in changing conditions to provide security and transcendental explanations of human suffering, sacrifice, and especially death. These explain the strong affinitive power of the nation, linked to kinship and community, perceived as destiny rather than choice, to remember, forget, and recreate a narrative of 'our own'.

In Anderson's development of the stages of the nation, the focus on social change and the basic fluidity of identities are based on factors which drive that change, the situational precipitates, products of particular events, relationships and processes that are themselves subject to change. This advantage of constructivism helps to explain historical evolution and changing identities. However, in relating his analysis only to nations, negotiably the most powerful and drawing group identity, Anderson misses Isaacs' important observation of the increasing fragmentation of the world system and its division into units beyond or below the nation. However, Anderson's contribution is important because it addresses the centrality of the "image" in creating a national reality. Nevertheless, the problem of defining the nation remains unsolved, in that all human associations and social groups are 'imagined communities,' and must be further defined by certain characteristics. A community is contingent on its members sustaining a certain image of it that is based on their perceptions and feelings. This leads us to question whether there are communities which are not imagined. Or whether imagined communities, in their creation, are less real than other groups? If the images of nations created under radically different circumstances and on the basis of different variables share common features, should not their definition underscore this common denominator? If so, the return to the conscious feeling of belongingness and national fraternity must replace reasons leading to these shared feeling. The definition, therefore, should only incorporate the features common to the communities that are nations which are distinguished from other imagined communities, such as fraternity, substantial distinctiveness and exclusivity, and the belief that they have an active interest in the preservation and well-being of their community. "Thus they seek to secure for themselves a public sphere where they can express their identity, practice their culture, and educate their young as well as beliefs in a common ancestry and a continuous genealogy which members are aware that they share". Finally, we must ask the question of demarcation, in that defining the nation necessarily entails constructing boundaries, giving a finite limit. Anderson's definition seeks to identify the nation, but does not give the scope or the spatial reality of the social constructions, which describes where the communities begins and ends, and what differentiates it from the next.

In his recent work Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-body of Siam, Thongchai Winichakul makes an important contribution to the definition of nationhood and its origins, in suggesting the need to regard creation as a process of formation through the demarcation of its body, the territoriality of a nation. Thongchai does not deny the common elements which constitute the identity of a nation, such as links of language, ethnicity, cultural traits or a political unity, nor the focus on how those elements were invented, and created the imagined nationhood. But he asserts that it is necessary to include the most constitutive element of a nation-state its territory. The attention to the 'body' and 'formation' is crucial to the concept of the nation in four ways. First, nationalism is sustained by the belief in a particular identity, and although it may be constructed and invented, it is clearly defined, and differentiated from others simultaneously. Therefore, the "creation of nationhood is a process of constructing the domain of a national entity, of demarcating the clear out-line of it, thereby creating the body of a nation." Secondly, this spatial perspective not only identifies the limits of the entity, it explains the beginning and ending of the nation, differentiating what it is as well as what it is not. Third, the study of territoriality of the nation recognizes the significance of political geography and its relevance in everyday culture, thereby incorporating the real life with other academic disciplines of history and theory. Finally, it expresses the true origins of nationhood, not as the strategic implementation of a master plan, but rather how it occurred as a process of transformation and localization by cultural agency, against the confrontation with the existing 'imagined' community. This shift of discourse between the past reality and the implementation of newly defined territory was the process that constructed the nation and sustains it throughout its dynamic stages.

Thongchai describes the 'geo-body' as the territoriality of a nation and the collective concept of SELF of its people. The concrete notion of the geo-body is critical for the management of nationhood, to distinguish concepts of integrity and sovereignty and control over internal processes. The geo-body, contrary to its implied nature of continuity and limitless history, is yet another construct, formulated by the meeting of indigenous spatial discourse with the modernizing of technology of representation, the map. This confrontation between the discourses of the pre-modern entities and the drive to create boundaries, the politico-geographical representations of maps creates the space in which, in the case of Siam, the geo-body emerged and was defined. In replacing the previously unmarked boundaries, the disconnected or overlapping frontiers, and hierarchical conglomerations, the modern state introduced notions of independence and exclusive sovereignty. This entailed difficult adjustments, in the conflict of establishing boundaries according to their modern or traditional discourses. The push of colonial expansion is considered one of the elemental factors in the spread of modern political geography, in its need for finely demarcated boundaries, clearly imaginable in map form, to allow the discourse of the nation and prevent unwanted collision. Confrontation, however, occurred not only in establishing these boundaries, but also in the ambiguity of the meaning of terms, in the shifting discourse, which resulted in political establishment of local regimes, integration and direct control of officials and territory, and the submission of all parts to create a whole. This moment, in Siam, defines the creation of the geo-body, the consolidation into nationhood, whether due to internal opportunism or external discourses of geographical representation, the real changes in political administration and territorial integrity defined the nation. In this essence, the military expansionism, the administrative integration, and the mapping operations, through a new language of space which conceives and represents a sovereign entity, a nation was created. The goals of mapping, to have modern boundaries, the unambiguous and exclusive sovereignty over a particular territory, and all the necessary practices for the reproduction of knowledge were based on the modern system of national interaction, and made impossible the pre-modern hierarchical polity. This also set the limits of where We-Self ended, and They-Other began. This generation of nationhood was accompanied with new practices and concepts of sovereignty, territorial value, human loyalty, attachment and sacrifice, as well as the transformation of previous indigenous values and traditional discourse into the geo-body. The geo-body and map themselves have generated symbols, meanings and values that add to the discourse on nationhood, providing a spatial notion to ideology and protecting against those perceived as 'outsiders.' Also evident are the limitations of the territorial definitions and map representations, in the conflicts of border controls usually within the nation, in internal suppressions, not associated with the 'whole' of the geo-body.

In the emergence of the new nationhood, the departure from previous imagined communities marks a break with the histories of those entities. In contrast to the conventional Thai historical narrative of kingdoms maintained through continual struggles for independence over an expansive history, the modern nation's history is limited to the point of its invention by politico-geography. The construction of an extended history, of Thai anti-colonial heroism, creates a national representation which allows the pain of the emergence of the geo-body to be forgotten and view the continual struggle to defend the independence of the nation, allowing a collective cherishing of the past successes. This narrative, based on different assumptions, uses modern discourse to describe history in nationalist terms, and was created at the point of emergence of the geo-body to deny its painful moment. In this example, Thongchai agrees with other authors, notably with Anderson, in the mutability and 'inventedness' of national myths, which are used to help sustain collective identities, but are paralleled to some kinds of internal realities, either in an effort to forget and recreate, or to sustain a collective triumph.

In this summation, Thongchai asserts that the constitutive elements of nationhood are the geo-body, the map, and the history, and these foundations (both temporal and spatial) are the conditionality that dictates any invented essence (of language, race, religion, class, political economy, etc.) In addition to national identity, Thongchai claims that "everything else as well is mapped," in the "discursive demarcation and construction of a domain whose distinctiveness is defined by certain boundaries." Finally, the formation of the nation is through the confrontation and tension between the changing Western influence and the transforming indigenous culture, the shifting limits and altering meanings of national identity. Because this friction is continual, the national identity is always unfixed, contradictory and ambiguous. But it is through this tension that the nation emerges and survives, a constant process of transculturation and adaptation.

Thongchai's incorporation of territoriality and the spatial dimension add an important element to any perspective of the nation, and is especially useful as a contribution to extend the constructivist approach. Anderson recognizes his earlier omission, and points to the importance of the dimensions of space and time and their relation to identities in his revisionary preface. Many credit Thongchai for the useful and transferable model of the case study of Siam, and its relevance to other colonized territories. But the study leaves unanswered the question of the relevance of territoriality for empirical dynasties. In their expansionist tendencies, how did the nation originate to contain a fixed geo-body form, and during what time period? And does that deny its relation to its colonies, during that particular time? The idea of the nation is useful, but as Anderson points out, there is difficulty in trying to super-impose nationalism with the expansionist dynasty. And how does this relate to the formation and transformation of the original metropole, how does it develop into the geo-body, and is it affected by the influence of its territories?

In all of the literature, the common theme is the effort to define identity, to define the nation, and the common elements that it contains. Although some claim that the definition should be focused purely on the shared common features, those which distinguish the imagined community as a nation from other types of social groups, others go beyond this in the search for origins, the factors which produce the nation, in order to define it. Still others focus on the elements of identity, which are not shared by all, the elements that differentiate within the commonality of the whole. All agree, however, that the concepts of identity and nation are difficult to define, in their changing and dynamic character, and the many invocations, uses and re-creations which are involved in the processes of everyday life at both the individual and the group level. There is no doubt that these terms have real meanings, in that they have real value and real consequences in political allocations, distribution, and ethnic and class relation. But the definitions of identity and nation are still contested, and while its implications become ever more evident, we realize the ever-increasing need to define, in order to better understand and, in Isaacs' language, create a "more humane humanity."