by Didier Bigo *
See linked pages:  preface || Teune 
Theme papers by:  Friedman || Hall || Riggs || Tehranian 
Finally:  comments by Bigo || a glossary 
* Starred terms are entered in the glossary where one may find some
comments on them and references to their use in the four theme papers.
Unfortunately, lack of space prevented notes on the somewhat different
connotations of these terms often seen in Bigo's discourse.
The strength of the texts in this issue lies in their homogeneity which
is present despite their different theoretical sensitivities. This
homogeneity is due to their common analytical framework, the longue
dure. All texts analyze transformations of the State* and ethnicity*
over several millennia. Such a perspective enables the various authors,
firstly, to distance themselves from the theses about "the return of
ethnicity after bipolarity" or "the inextricable nature of
Secondly, all authors strongly affirm that contemporary ethnicity is
the product of modernity* and of a certain type of State* with national*
claims. For them, the former constitutes an emergent strategic stake in
struggles between actors and has little to do with an unspecified
primitive situation or an unspecified natural communalization. There is
thus no need for establishing an opposition between the modernity of the
State* and an historical retreat or decay related to the return of
Thirdly, according to these authors, the fact that ethnicity* is a
modern social construction does not, on the other hand, prevent it from
destabilizing citizen solidarities. In their view, it could also
correspond to a new form of solidarity which is directly linked to either
the birth of an informational imperialism*, the decline of a global
hegemony*, or to post-modernity*.
The capacity of the authors to link these three issues concerning the
formation of the State* and the world system*, the formation of
contemporary ethnicity* and the relations of the latter to conflictuality,
gives the texts a specific tone. Their originality challenges and disturbs
the concert of generally accepted ideas. It is for this reason that they
deserve to be carefully analyzed. It will nevertheless be seen that the
quasi " braudelienne" perspective adopted in these texts, which
studies the present moment as an interaction of "differentiated
layers of duration"(nappes de dure differencies) can be
problematic. Such an approach runs the risk of constituting the concepts
which it uses as meta-historical objects. Generalizations concerning the
relations between the State and ethnicity and economic structures, which
are not always well founded, tend to overshadow symbolic and political
analysis. Such relations or processes that one wanted [to be] dialectical
and historical end up being essentialised, and even reified. The combined
illusions of natural history and teleology hence resurface.
Thomas Hall, in a rewarding text, immediately relativizes what a number
of other authors take for granted and consider as an inevitable starting
point for analysis : he reminds us that ethnically-homogeneous-States*
have always been extremely rare. He thus joins William McNeil in claiming
that the national State* is the exception, the poly-ethnic State the rule.
In his opinion there has been insufficient analysis of the mechanisms of
incorporation, that is to say the mechanisms through which people and
religions are absorbed into the world-system*. Instead, we tend to reduce
these mechanisms to their institutional forms and analyze them in terms of
State borders. Indeed, the discourses about the State in the Westphalian
system neglect the longue dure and lead us to mistake what is in fact a
normative discourse for the description of social practices. Our
europocentrism blinds us into believing that the trajectory of far Western
Europe is universal. We forget about the diversity of possible paths in
the formation of States and the fact that for thousands of years
city-States, empire-States and national-States* have coexisted, even in
Moreover, we do not sufficiently question the relationships between
constraint and capital, terms used by Charles Tilly.  Consequently,
many authors fail to understand the relationships between States* and
ethnicity* because they hold false ideas about State formation itself.
Certain international relations specialists who have recently converted
from strategic defense initiative or security issues to ethnic conflict
studies, found their analysis on false presuppositions about the nature of
the State*. In their view, the State* is by definition an homogeneous
nation-State*, where "a" population within a confined space,
delimited by borders, is controlled by "an" authority.
Furthermore, they consider it to be the only desirable "model";
for them poly-ethnic models are believed to inevitably lead to chaos,
anarchy, and war of all against all. The fact that this has not been the
case for thousands of years seems to have gone unnoticed. When describing
the history of the State* and sovereignty, these specialists quote the
seventeenth century philosophers rather than historians or
Moreover, they quote these philosophers in such a way that the ideas
of the latter are distorted, if only it be by the historicizing of the
concept of the state of nature. It would thus seem that international relations
specialists writing about ethnicity are immune to the problem of legitimacy.
They end up instituting themselves as an epistemic community even though
they lack basic knowledge in history and anthropology, knowing neither
the literature nor the methodology in these domains. The mainstream
theses on ethnic conflict are not only prisoner of realist postulates as
is often pointed out, but they also constitute a "knowledge"
which is written within the confines of the office and wants to be nothing
more than a synthesis of world events.
Yet, the study of cultural dimensions of identities and ethnicity requires
practical knowledge, inter-subjective meetings and an experience of otherness
which, in turn, can only be achieved through substantial field work. From
a distance, it is easy to forget one's own identity and make generalizations
about ethnic identity, essentializing it and constructing it as something
exotic. It is also easy to relay ethnicity to the idea of otherness and
continue to think of oneself as universal, because of one's dominant position.
However, when one incorporates field work into one's analyzes such reasoning
becomes more difficult.
The false ideas on State* formation lead to erroneous assessments about
the nature of ethnicity, as to whether it be pre-modern* or not. The
latter is easily referred back to quasi prehistoric times and treated as
if it had always existed. It is perceived as the hidden face of
civilization which rears its ugly head as soon as war forms trigger the
unleashing of its animal impulses. In this view, ethnic antagonism is
always lying just below the surface and can be more readily mobilized than
other types of antagonisms by war mongers who can instrumentalize the
historical memory, highlighting certain tragedies and concealing peaceful
periods of cohabitation of different ethnic groups. Whether it be a matter
of explaining the breakup of the USSR, Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan or Liberia,
ethnicity provides a grid for analyzing and understanding conflicts, in
spite of the political and religious differences.
Vis-a-vis this view, Fred Riggs points out that the apparent opposition
between primordialists and instrumentalists masks the strong underlying
agreement between them. Both consider ethnicity as a form of a past
(whether it be real or mobilized through memory). However, contemporary
ethnic conflicts are deeply modern* or para-modern* phenomena and although
we may dislike the idea that modernity* can be the source of barbarism, we
must accept that barbarity is the product of modernity and does not
originate from pre-modern* times.
In accordance with Thomas Hall, Fred Riggs underlines the fact that in
pre-modern* societies ethnic diversity* never generated ethnic or more
precisely ethno-nationalist* conflicts. Great ethnic diversity* exists
almost everywhere and this does not prevent peaceful cohabitation. For
Riggs, the instrumentalization of ethnicity* and nationality* through
their politicization must be understood as a modern* phenomena, as a
product of the mechanisms of colonialism, conquest, the development of
nationalist* ideologies and the dream of a world divided into homogeneous
State-nations*, of democratic* institutions and arms production ....
However, in contrast with John Bowen, Fred Riggs points out that one
should not assimilate ethnic diversity* and multiculturalism* with a
perfectly harmonious world, thereby replacing, one might say, the
Hobbesian version of interethnic war with a Rousseauiste version of the
We thus come to the third point. Glocalization and ethnic diversity*
have engendered new forms of social relations by privileging global
nomadism*, multiplication of diasporas and by questioning the rapport
between populations and their natal territory. Majid Tehranian further
develops Fred Riggs' notion of global nomadism by making the distinction
between rich and poor nomads. Whereas the former, ranging from
multinational corporations to international congresses, travel the world;
the latter, in flight from conflicts, have no other choice than to leave
their own country and settle elsewhere.
Jonathan Friedman also adopts this position. He focuses on the link
between the novelty of ethnic forms of solidarity and transnationality*
and tries to envisage migration* as something other than the resettlement
of an ethnic group on another's territory. By considering migrants as "settlers"
one condemns oneself to a vision which transforms them into "invaders".
In this perspective, one forgets just how plastic ethnicity is and how
groups do interact and adapt to each other, as through the exchange of
women, linguistic and culinary practices. All ethnic borders can be
transgressed except when political entrepreneurs manage to mobilize groups
and set up temporary barriers between these groups. This is achieved by
manufacturing an image of the enemy, and in particular the internal enemy
At times, Fred Riggs seems to forget this and in a Janus-like manner,
tends to position the migrant so that he is torn between solidarities with
the host country and the country of origin and has no alternative or third
choice. It is true that some migrants remain attached to their country
of origin and become contacts for organizing and executing attacks against
the host country. However, statistics show that such cases are extremely
rare and thus not only to disprove but also reverse the previous claim.
The ideas that migrants constitute "a fifth column" at the service
of their country of origin and represent a potential source of mass terrorism
were uprooted during the bloodiest attacks in Paris in 1986, 1995 and 1996.
At the time of these episodes it proved to be extremely difficult to recruit
protagonists for the attacks amongst the immigrant populations. The arrest
of a handful of people was enough in each instance to put an end to the
This is not to say that immigrants necessarily agree with their host
country policies. But they try to find practical arrangements which enable
them to overcome this Janus situation and transform what Fred Riggs beautifully
terms "the limbo land" into some thing concrete. Thus in analyzing
immigration* according to ethno-national* categories or in connection with
security issues, one risks securitizing the immigration question, playing
too easily on fears and constructing a threat through the invention of
"an " imaginary adversary (the immigrant becomes a relay of terrorism,
drug problems, crime, unemployment, AIDS...). Immigration does not fit
such an analysis; it stems from thousands of individual and independent
decisions and lacks any will or global intention. In short, immigration
is a phenomenon of social change and cannot as such be considered as threat
to society unless one is willing to partake in the reactionary rhetoric
which advocates immobility as a societal ideal.
The debate on how to conceptualise immigration is far from being closed and it is important to remember the role of immigration in the formation of the world-system*. Majid Tehranian tries to categorise immigration according to this latter criterion when he distinguishes between agrarian, industrial and informational imperialism*. Indeed, the effects of the world system* must be reconsidered in terms of incorporation and the dialectic of the opening and closing of state borders to migration flows must be analysed. However, it seems that such a post-fordist, world-system* approach has a tendency to neglect many important dimensions: the autonomy* of polity with respect to economy, the role of internal factors, the symbolic dimension of power relations which is forgotten because one focuses exclusively on exploitation, forms of coercion and the relationship with territory. It is doubtful whether concepts such as global apartheid can contribute to a better understanding of the phenomena of policy deterritorialisation or what major French authors have called the international without territory.7
On the contrary, identity dynamics must be analyzed both beyond and
within State* borders and thought of as mobile, fluid identities whose
demarcations fluctuate and interpenetrate. It should be understood that
both the domestic and the international order -- it is not easy to
distinguish between the two anymore -- are founded on exchanges (of goods,
capital, information, and people) and not on [genetic?] stocks. At the
same time, it is necessary to re-analyze the notion of border as a
discriminant in the fields of economics, security and cultures and
remember that no thought is possible without creating delimitations.
This is why forms of symbolic power (or violence) must also be analyzed
and cannot simply be regarded as products derived from transformations of
the world-system*. They are always taken for well-known, natural objects
which never change : the State or the ethnic group*. As Paul Veyne has
explained in a very important text:
" The illusion of a natural object (the governed [and also
ethnicity*] throughout history) conceals the heterogeneous nature of
practices. The governed are neither unitary nor multiple, any more than
repression is, for the simple reason that it does not exist : there are
just multiple objectifications which correlate with heterogeneous
practices. The relationship between this multiplicity of practices and a
unit only becomes an issue if one tries to ascribe unity when there is
none ; a gold watch, a lemon zest and a racoon are also a multiplicity and
do not seem to suffer from the fact that they have neither origin, object
nor principle in common. Only the illusion of a natural object creates a
vague impression of unity...there is no subconscious, no repression.. just
the eternal teleological illusion. We are wrong in assuming that the
doing, or practice, can be explained on the basis of what is done. On the
contrary, what is done is explained by what the doing was at any point in
History. Things, objects, are simply the correlate of practices. So our
error is believing that the State* or States have always existed
throughout history instead of studying the practices which project
objectivations that we take for the State or different forms of the
We fail to consider the dynamics involved in the passage from causes to
results because we underestimate the causal mediations and systematically
explain great events by "great causes" such as the
world-system*. It is here that this illusion and the illusion of natural
history join up and where authors have difficulties admitting that
"local changes or transformations of low amplitude can produce great
effects..." They do not understand that outcomes are contingent
and that events, even when they are real tragedies as in Bosnia, are the
result of the random combination of multiple series of determinations. So
perhaps the work that lies ahead of us should consist of trying to gain a
better understanding of the actors' practices and the objective actions
they give rise to, as well as looking more closely at the interplays
between the multiple and local dimensions of events. Such work is less
grand than a dialectical explanation of 5000 years of history based on the
notions of State* and ethnicity*, yet is just as necessary and just as
important theoretically. Starting from these practices (including
discursive ones) we should try to reconstruct the interests and norms of
the latter instead of wanting, yet again, to draw global prospects which
reify and essentialize History.
*Maitre de Conferences des Universits l'Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, editor of Cultures & Conflits
1 Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States AD 990-1990,
Blackwell, Oxford, 1990
2. Liberals prefer philosophy of contract to history of war. cf. Michel Foucault, "Il faut defendre la societe" Cours du college de France, 1976, Gallimard, Paris, 1997.
3. David Campbell points out how these authors use a footnote referencing the works of Anthony Smith to replace a coherent argumentation on the notion of ethnicity. Cf. David Campbell, Ethnic Bosnia: The Poliltical Anthropology of International Diplomacy. ISA, Toronto, 1996.
4 This is also discussed in Michel Wieviorka (ed.), Racisme et modernite, La Decouverte, Paris, 1993.
5. For further analyses of these issues, cf. Jean Francois Bayart, L'Illusion identitaire, Fayart, Paris, 1996; and Christophe Jaffrelot (ed.) "Etat et communautarisme," Cultures & Conflicts, n. 15/16, Paris, 1994.
6. Didier Bigo, Polices en reseaux: l'experience europenne, Presses de Sciences Po, Paris, 1996.
7. Bertrand Badie, Marie-Claude Smouts <dir.) "L'International sans territoires," Cultures & Conflits, n.21/22, Paris, 1995.
8 Hayward Alker (ed.), Michael Shapiro (ed.), Challenging Boundaries, University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
9. Malcolm Anderson, Frontiers: Territory and State Formation in the Modern World, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1996. Ayse Ceyhan (dir.) Anastassia Tsoukala (dir.), "Controles: Frontires-Indtits: les enjeux autour de l'immigration et de l'asile," Cultures & Conflits, n.25-26, Paris, 1997.
10. Paul Veyne, Comment on crit l'Histoire Seuil, Paris, 1977, pp. 364, 365..
11 Michel Dobry, Sociologie des crises politiques, Presses de Sciences Po, Paris, 1986.
See linked pages:
|| introduction by Teune
|| Glossary 
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Updated: 2 January 1998