Nationalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town

TitleNationalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsMorosanu, Laura
Author(s) of reviewed materialBrubaker, Roger, Margit Feischmidt, Jon Fox, and Liana Grancea
PublisherPrinceton: Princeton University Press
Pages439, 36 pgs. of plates
ISSNISBN 0691128340
Review year


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At a time when social scientists have started to look "beyond the ethnic lens" in an attempt to complete the unfinished project of breaking with "methodological nationalism," Nationalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town comes as a major contribution. While advocates of transnationalism have convincingly argued for the need to overcome the nation-state as our framework for analysis, much of the work in migration or community studies still remains grounded in one ethnic or national group now indeed studied across borders, some scholars warn. In this line of research and in others tightly connected with transnationalism such as globalization or urban studies, attempts have been made to renounce the "ethnic group" as our main unit of analysis, and look for other "non-ethnic forms of settlement and transnational connection." [See the following articles: Ayse Çağlar, Nina Glick-Schiller, and Thaddeus Guldbrandsen, “Beyond the Ethnic Lens. Locality. Globality, and Born-again Incorporation,”American Ethnologist, Vol. 33, No. 4 (2006) and Andreas Wimmer, “Does Ethnicity Matter? Everyday Group Formation in Three Swiss Immigrant Neighborhoods,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1 (January 2004).]

Building on a former work by Brubaker titled Ethnicity without Groups, this study makes a strong case for the reconceptualization and analysis of ethnicity without asserting its primacy among other idioms of identity or interpretative frames. While touching upon manifold theoretical questions in the field of ethnic and nationalism studies, the authors’ main concern is to shift our attention away from simplistic constructivist approaches to ethnicity, preoccupied with what ethnicity is, and provide us with the analytical tools necessary for a better understanding of how it is constructed: when, where, and how it actually operates in politics and in every day life. The critique raised against conventional constructivist understandings of ethnicity is that they often fall into what they allegedly stand against, namely the trap of "groupism." They are speaking of and analyzing "ethnic groups" as if they were real, bounded entities, which think and act unanimously. What the authors propose instead is to take ethnicity – or nationhood – as "an interpretative prism, a way of making sense of the social world;" and they illustrate their argument with rich empirical data from the Transylvanian town Cluj.

Apart from this important rethinking of our perspective on ethnicity in the abovementioned sense, the book makes another important contribution. Unsatisfied with the overwhelming focus on official politics and elite discourse prevailing nationalism studies, the authors take up Hobsbawm’s pertinent point, that nationalism should also be studied from below as well as from above. The former has almost always been confined to anthropologists’ terrain, while heavily neglected in other fields. This constitutes the starting point for their empirically based argument that nationalist politics and everyday manifestations of ethnicity in Cluj do not quite match. In fact, the high-level ethnic frictions have little echo in the lives of ordinary people whose main preoccupations prove to be other than ethnic in nature.

As the title suggests, the structure of the book reflects this concern with how nationalism from above and from below relate to each other, if they do at all. Thus, the first part not only provides the historical context for the analysis of data gathered in present–day Cluj (which constitutes the subject of the second part), but also aims to emphasize the striking discrepancy between the contentious ethno-nationalist politics marking Transylvania, and Cluj in particular, from late 19th century up to present times, and the relatively little - and different - salience ethnicity has had since 1989, among the Romanians as well as Hungarians who live in Cluj. Hence, drawing on a vast body of literature, the first four chapters trace the development of nationalist politics, starting from the emergence of the national question in East Central Europe, focusing then on Transylvania, and eventually on Kolozsvár/Cluj. In this way, the postcommunist debates over Hungarian claims regarding education, the public space, and symbolic recognition are embedded in the broader historical context of nationalizing projects and shifting sovereignties in the region.

Nevertheless, the elite-level ethno-national tensions presented in the first half of the book resonate little with the everyday concerns of today’s inhabitants of Cluj, Romanian and Hungarian alike. The aim of the authors is to show this by means of a fine analysis of rich qualitative data collected in Cluj over almost a decade. To write about everyday ethnicity and simultaneously emphasize its little visibility is by no means an unchallenging task. The book, however, does a wonderful job of skillfully looking for instantiations of ethnicity without taking it for granted or overemphasizing it. While ethnicity does not prove to have a crucial effect the everyday lives of Romanians and Hungarians, Brubaker et al. argue that it is nevertheless more salient for the latter. This justifies the fact that the authors have paid more attention to the "Hungarian world." While for the majority population, "Romanian" is the "unmarked," taken for granted identity, Hungarians are more likely to experience things "ethnically" or see events through the "ethnic lens." Hence, the authors set out to detect when and where ethnicity might "happen," and how it works, by looking at language use, institutions, networks, everyday interaction, coping strategies, mixed encounters, and, last but not least, at politics from below. The historical analysis of elite-level ethno-nationalist politics prevalent in the first half of the book gives way to a fine combination of ethnographic observation, and discourse analysis of data elicited from interviews and group discussions with Clujeni/kolozsváriak. The book thus allows us to approach ethnicity without asserting its utmost salience in organizing people’s lives.

While some might feel uneasy about this binary structure of the book, the split between elite nationalist politics and everyday ethnicity, it is perhaps particularly through this contrast that the authors make their point most forcefully: to understand why tensions "from above" do not simply predetermine mass conflict, we need to look at everyday reactions and responses to official politics and seek to understand whether and how the discourses produced by elites reach the people in whose name they claim to speak. In his insightful book on Cultural Intimacy. Social Poetics in the Nation-State, anthropologist Michael Herzfeld is concerned with nationalism "from below" and studies the ways in which the official rhetoric of the nation-state might relate to everyday forms of nationalism. Interestingly, he finds a common ground among popular practices and understandings of things "national," which satirize and subvert official discourses, but in doing so, often rely on the same language or strategies as the latter. Brubaker et al.’s study might benefit from Herzfeld’s theoretical framework, an elaborate discussion of which cannot be entered here. While the authors do discuss how Hungarians and Romanians alike share in common economic concerns, strategies of getting by (such as migration), or disdain of elitist politics, it might have been interesting to see if the vernacular understandings of "nationhood" and feelings against elite-shaped national rhetoric would have anything in common with the latter, along the lines suggested by Herzfeld. Thus, the distance between what is "above" and "below" might prove smaller in some intriguing ways.

Overall, this is an excellent, erudite book, both in terms of its theoretical aspects and its empirical material and it simultaneously succeeds at reminding us again that a valuable piece of work can, and perhaps even should also be, sharply argued, clearly written and enjoyable to read, all at the same time.