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Maintaining ethnic boundaries in “non-ethnic” contexts: constructivist theory and the sexual reproduction of diversity

Abstract

How can ethnic boundaries survive in contexts of legal racial equality and institutionalized ethnic mixing? Constructivist theories of ethnicity have long emphasized the fluidity, rather than the durability, of ethnic boundaries. But the fact that ethnic boundaries often endure—and even thrive—in putatively non-ethnic political contexts suggests the need for sustained attention to the problem of boundary persistence. Based on an ethnographic study of ethnic boundaries in the Turkish case, this article argues that the regulation of the domain of sexuality and marriage can play a critical role in reproducing boundaries when political institutions neither acknowledge nor aid in the survival of ethnic diversity. Ultimately, the data provide substantial evidence that the transmission and internalization of informal rules of inter-ethnic sexual conduct are central to boundary maintenance.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Turkey’s potential EU membership, the rise of a recently stronger Kurdish political party, and the spread of multiculturalist discourses since early 2000s have begun to challenge this institutional framework. The opening of Kurdish language courses and Kurdish and Arabic TV channels, and various political reforms to ease restrictions on the expression of “ethnic identities” other than Turkish are a few examples of this process.

  2. 2.

    As cultural demographics indicate, three monotheistic religions—Islam, Christianity, and Judaism—have been appropriated by ethnicities such as Turk, Kurd, Arab, Armenian, Laz, and Circassian in Antioch and the broader region (Aswad 1971; Olsson 1998). For this reason, boundaries in the region and throughout Turkey tend to take on an ethno-religious character. In many cases, religion more than ethnicity is perceived to be the main boundary between “groups.” Therefore, throughout the paper, I use the term “ethnic” broadly to refer to “ethno-religious.”

  3. 3.

    Drawing from Weber’s theory on communal relations, constructivism develops a two-tiered approach to ethnicity. In Weber’s view (Weber 1978 [1922]: 40), a social relationship gains the quality of being “communal” only insofar as “the orientation of social action….is based on a subjective feeling of the parties, whether affectual or traditional, that they belong together.” Weber’s stress on what people think they are underlines the “self-ascription” aspect of ethnic ethnicity, while definitions ascribed to a group by outsiders constitute the “social classification” aspect. According to constructivism, the processual and dynamic character of ethnic identity emerges from the simultaneous existence of and interaction between these two dimensions. See Brubaker et.al. (2004); Eriksen (1993); and Jenkins (1997). Variants of the same paradigm such as circumstantialism or instrumentalism are developed by Hechter (1986); Nagel (1995); Okamura (1981).

  4. 4.

    This view is often attributed to objectivist accounts. See Roosens (1994) for arguments on genealogical substance; Geertz (1972) on primordial reckoning; and van den Berghe (1981) on biological basis.

  5. 5.

    For reviews of this debate see Cornell (1996); Gil-White (1999); Hale (2004); Wimmer (2009).

  6. 6.

    Brubaker (2006: 7), for example, contend “Familiar constructivist formulae have become well-worn gestures that one reads (and writes) virtually automatically.” They are now “too obviously right, too readily taken for granted, to generate the friction, force, and freshness needed to push arguments further and generate new insights.”

  7. 7.

    See Brubaker 2006. For other works that have begun to rethink constructivism see Telles and Sue (2009) and Wimmer (2008).

  8. 8.

    On the effect of “changes in social perceptions” of ethnic boundaries over time see, Cornell and Hartmann (2007); Hirschfeld (1996); Loveman and Muniz (2007); Nagel (1995).

  9. 9.

    Certainly, sexuality, kinship, and marriage are not the only domains of boundary creation, reproduction, and solidification. Although an exhaustive review is beyond the scope of this article, it is important to highlight other important sites. Racial conquest and domination (Hiers 2013; Marx 1996; Omi and Winant 1994; Sanjek 1994; Wacquant 1997), nation-building processes (Mann 2005; Wimmer 2002), and citizenship regimes (Brubaker 1994) constitute critical sites of institutional boundary making. Oppression or assimilation, in turn, can trigger reactive boundary making in the form of social, political, or separatist mobilization of “ethnic minorities” (Hechter 2000). Violence is also a crucial tool for solidifying boundaries (Brubaker and Laitin 1998; Fearon and Laitin 2000; Horowitz 2000; for good case studies see Mamdani 2001; McCann 1993; Woodward 1995). At the societal level, religious institutions (Smith 1988), neighborhood segregation (Massey and Denton 1993), separate social organizations (Breton 1964; Lijphart 1975), and class distinctions (Eriksen 1993) can contribute to the reproduction and maintenance of ethnic boundaries.

  10. 10.

    The rule of taking but not giving is discussed at greater length beginning on page 33.

  11. 11.

    For the law in successor states such as Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Libya see El Alami and Hinchcliff (1996: 15, 69, 87, 119, 155, 223, 251, 185); for other states in the Middle East and North Africa such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Morocco, and Sudan see Otto (2010).

  12. 12.

    Primary socialization has been a central concept in the work of many theorists from Freud ([1923] 2013) to Mead ([1934] 1962) to Bourdieu. In his critical work Rethinking Ethnicity, Jenkins provides a good synthesis of this theoretical work, which I build upon, to explain primary socialization along ethnic lines. According to Jenkins, ethnicity may or may not be the dominant component of one’s identity. However, it is one alongside other primary identities of human-ness, gender, and selfhood (64). Humans develop their sense of self through a complex interaction of separating themselves from but also associating with “others.” The development of a strong ethnic component in one’s identity depends on the local conditions and historical saliency of ethnic identity.

  13. 13.

    Dispositions are not deterministic. (Bourdieu 2000: 149) states “They are revealed and fulfilled only in appropriate circumstances…Each of them can manifest itself in different, even opposite, practices depending on the situation.” Thus individuals may know who makes an appropriate partner, but not act with this knowledge.

  14. 14.

    For an alternative view that contests the rhetorical assumptions of the civic foundations upon which Turkish nationalism is built see Parla and Davison (2004).

  15. 15.

    It is important to note that although the Kurd-Turk ethnic boundary is the most prominent in Turkey, it is only one of several ethno-religious boundaries. Hence, it would be misleading to reduce the discussion on the survival of boundaries in Turkey to the Kurdish-Turkish boundary alone. In underlining the role of assimilationism and suppression, my aim is to show how these factors help solidify this particular boundary. However, they are insufficient for explaining the overall maintenance of all ethno-religious boundaries in Turkey.

  16. 16.

    Alevis, a heterodox Muslim community in Antioch, have close ethno-religious ties to the Alawites in Syria. Although significantly Turkified, Antiochian Alevis in fact constitute some of the remaining Arab Alawite population within Turkish borders after the accession of Hatay to Turkey in 1939. (Tord Olsson 1998: 167) suggests that Alawites live along the Mediterrenean coast that stretches from southern Turkey to northern Israel. According to Olsson, today Alawites constitute 12 % of the Syrian population and about 185,000 Alawites live in Southern Turkey in Hatay, Adana, and İçel, and in Lebanon and Israel. Unlike Alevis in Central and Eastern Anatolia, who predominantly speak Turkish or Kurdish, Antiochian Alevis speak Arabic (much like their Syrian brethern). More importantly, Antiochian Alevis do not have a “cem evi” (traditional worship places) to gather or do “cem” (traditional dance) like Anatolian Alevis as a form of worship. In other words, they share more lingustic and religious affinities with Syrian Alawites than Alevis of Turkish or Kurdish origin. However, I have chosen the more widely used term “Alevi” instead of its Arabic version “Alawite” as it is more appropriate in the Turkish context.

  17. 17.

    Turkey’s census data does not classify people by ethnicity or religion. Based on estimates from Turkish Demographic and Health Surveys (TDHS), Kurdish-speakers constituted ~14 % (10.2 million) and Arabic-speakers ~2 % (1.3 million) of 70 million people in 2003 (Gündüz-Hoşgör and Smits 2002; Koç et al. 2008). These studies also provide regional demographics. The southern region including Antioch includes 45.5 % of the Arab-speaking population (~592,000 people) and 8.8 % of the Kurdish-speaking population (~898,000 people) in Turkey (Koç et al. 2008: 450). Numbers at the city level do not exist.

  18. 18.

    See Hürriyet Pazar, “Türkiye’ye Hatay dersi” (April 29, 2007).

  19. 19.

    Three of the focus groups included four people in each, and one focus group included three people (15 respondents in total). The focus groups were also loosely structured and open-ended. The data excerpts below where more than two people talk are all drawn from focus groups. See note 20 for interview themes and questions.

  20. 20.

    My interpretive coding scheme focused on four themes: (1) inter-ethnic sexual relation patterns, past and present, (2) how people learn who makes a good partner, (3) the different gatekeepers involved in dating and marriage processes, (4) types of daily interactions with ethno-religious “others.” The coding scheme was designed to answer the following sub-questions: What are the stakes involved in dating or marrying outside the group? Do different rules apply to females and males? Are there any observable changes in the ways society reacts to inter-ethnic sexual relationships over time?

  21. 21.

    Official intermarriage rates, just like official ethnic-category rates do not exist for Turkey. Several studies focus on marriages between Turks and Kurds, coding Arabs under the “Other” category (Gündüz-Hoşgör and Smits 2002; Koç et al. 2008). These studies suggest intermarriage rates between Turks and Kurds (and by extension Arabs) are low. Based on the 1998 and 2003 TDHS, 2.2 % of Turkish women are intermarried, and among those 73 % of spouses are Kurdish and 27 % are “Other” (a category that includes Arabs). The intermarriage rate is much higher for Kurds, with 7.7 % married to non-Kurds. Among those, 86 % have a Turkish husband, while 14 % are married to a husband categorized as “Other” (Koç et.al 2008: 455). Region specific intermarriage data do not exist.

  22. 22.

    Throughout the analysis section, I use the term “inter-ethnic sexual relations” to refer to relations of dating, courtship, engagement, and marriage outside one’s ethnic category. The term “sexual relations” does not connote to its literal meaning only (for example premarital sex is neither acceptable nor pervasive in Antioch), but rather it is used as an umbrella term. Although I do not make a neat seperation between the two, norms of dating and courtship are slightly different than norms of engagement and marriage, in the sense that inter-ethnic dating is often more acceptable than marriage. Thus one can date outside the group as long as it does not result in a marriage. However, marrying outside the group is a less tolerable and strictly resisted act as I discuss below.

  23. 23.

    All names are pseudonyms.

  24. 24.

    Not all Sunnis are well-off. Nonetheless, many lower class Sunnis still consider themselves higher than other groups—especially Alevis—in terms of self-esteem and location in the social hierarchy.

  25. 25.

    For this classic assumption on the relationship between class and social closure through the monopolization of marriage opportunities by priviliged groups see for example Weber’s theory of ethnic group formation (1978 [1922]: 386); on the debates on upward mobility through marrying out of ethnic and racial category see Harris (1956); Schwartzman (2007).

  26. 26.

    A refers to the author

  27. 27.

    Davis (1994), for example, shows how widespread the informal regulation of sexuality, marriage, and classifying children from mixed unions was in the American South. Although this informal regulation was backed by a set of formal segregationist and anti-miscegenation laws, it nonetheless did much of the real work in maintaining boundaries. Comparable cases were also present in Germany and South Africa during the twentieth century (Jenkins 1997: 66).

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Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Christopher Bail, Philippe Duhart, Yuval Feinstein, Rob Jansen, Richard Jenkins, Jeff Prager, Judith Seltzer, Stefan Timmermans, and Andreas Wimmer for helpful comments on previous versions of this article. I would especially like to express my gratitude to Rogers Brubaker and Eric Hamilton who read multiple drafts in their entirety and provided invaluable support. I also gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Esra Çimencioğlu. Thanks also to participants from the 2010 UCLA Comparative Social Analysis Workshop and the 2007 “Rethinking Europe: Religion, Ethnicity, Nation” SSRC Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship workshops. This research was made possible by a fellowship from the Social Science Research Council’s International Dissertation Field Research Fellowship Program with funds provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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Correspondence to Z. Ozgen.

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Ozgen, Z. Maintaining ethnic boundaries in “non-ethnic” contexts: constructivist theory and the sexual reproduction of diversity. Theor Soc 44, 33–64 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-014-9239-y

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Keywords

  • Ethnic boundaries
  • Constructivism
  • Social reproduction
  • Sexual relations
  • Turkey