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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .

From Culture to Ethnicity to Conflict: An Anthropological Perspective on International Ethnic Conflict
Jack David Eller

(Ann Arbor, MN: University of Michigan Press, 1999)
368pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: $54.50; ISBN 0-472-10961-8. Pb.: $19.95; ISBN 0-472-08538-7.

This book begins with two theoretical chapters and concludes with five case study chapters. The former chapters (on anthropological and other concepts related to ethnicity, nationalism, culture and the past from Herder to Crapanzano by way of Marx, Lenin, Boas, Weber, Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, Gluckman, Furnivall, Leach, Glazer and Moynihan, Geertz, Barth, Shils, Anderson, Hymes and others) inform the discussion of the five very different cases (Sri Lanka, the Kurds, Rwanda and Burundi, Bosnia and Quebec), but there is no attempt to draw comparative theoretical conclusions from these cases. Eller sets out to demonstrate the total incorrectness of primordialism as a theory and its inapplicability to all of the cases. Along the way he demonstrates a command of a very wide range of theoretical and case study literature from several disciplines. The book is well worth the reader's time on the basis of Eller's erudition alone, especially if those readers are students, for whom the book was written.

For this reviewer, Eller's attack on primordialism is justified in many respects but is too extreme. His definition of it is very narrow, leading him to reject George Scott's suggestion that it should be combined with circumstantialism to more completely explain ethnic phenomena. Eller seems to say that ethnicity is completely socially constructed, ignoring the distinction made recently by Paris Yeros, among others, between circumstantialism and constructivism. The case studies offer detailed histories of constructed ethnicities, but do not really disprove that they have some degree of primordial base. For Eller, however, primordialism is not a matter of degree. In his discussion of Rwanda and Burundi, the cases in the book that this reviewer knows best, Eller presents a wealth of detail on changes in the meaning, unity and power of Tutsi and Hutu during the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-independence periods, and the significantly different patterns of these changes in the two countries. But he acknowledges that the two groups have existed for some time, with at least a significant ethnic component to their identities.

James R. Scarritt
University of Colorado at Boulder

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