Accepted paper:

Symbolic discourses and discursive symbols: multiculturalism, culture and national identity in Brazil and Germany


Jens Schneider (Universiteit van Amsterdam)

Paper short abstract:

Brazil and Germany could not be more different with regard to the role of multiculturality and diversity in public and individual notions of national identity. The paper analyses findings from ethnographic research in both settings, including interviews with, for example, leading politicians and journalists.

Paper long abstract:

Brazil and Germany represent two contrasting cases with regard to the role of cultural diversity and heterogeneity in the self-imagination as nations. Brazil is externally and internally closely associated with diversity, be it 'racial' or cultural. Part of the nation's 'myth of origin' is the idea of Brazilians being a 'blend' of 'three founding races', Portuguese, Africans and Natives. By contrast, Germanness until today is mainly defined through blood descent, and notions of 'purity' have played an important role in German self-definitions. Even the historical notion of being a 'Kulturnation' was based on the idea of a national folk character, 'genealogically inherited' from one generation to the next. Of course, national self-imaginations are not necessarily compatible with empirical realities, if ever. The absurdity of the German denial to be an 'immigration country' in face of massive migration movements since the late 1950s has frequently been observed, and the insistence on a ius sanguinis-based citizenship legislation has lead to large numbers of society members being considered as non-Germans and forced to apply to the citizenship of the country they were born in and lived their entire lives. Dominant public and everyday discourses have largely failed to provide narratives for the increased empirical diversity of the society. But also the Brazilian way of using 'race' and regional origin as continuous distinctive markers for social hierarchy and exclusion has had devastating effects on all attempts to diminish the degree of social inequality - which continues to figure among the highest in the world. The harshness of social exclusion and the omnipresence of everyday violence can be seen as the most salient contradiction to Brazil's (self-)image of a peace-loving and joyful giant. The paper analyses, how the notions of multiculturality and diversity are dealt with in media, political and individual everyday discursive and symbolic representations of national belonging and identity. It reports some findings from ethnographic field research realised in both national settings, including quotes from interviews with leading politicians, journalists and cultural performers. Theoretically, the paper parts, on the one hand, from nation theory's hypotheses on the constructedness of national belonging, and, on the other, from Barth's and Devereux's observations about the (dis)connection between culture and boundaries/ethnic identities respectively. Following Anthropology's traditionally strong empirical orientation, it interprets these theoretical assumptions bearing in mind possible developments in ethnographic research regarding the formation and politics of identity in (multicultural) national settings. Here, the paper sketches the concept of an "ethnography of discursive spaces". The analysis of the two cases leads to a theoretical distinction between discourse-centred (Germany) and symbol-centred (Brazil) constructions of national identity.

panel W014
Anthropology and the politics of multiculturalism (a friendly merger of W014 & W030)