Reflections on Cultural Identity: Ethnicity, intellectual property, and the commodification of collective being

9 May, 2012

A joint presentation by John Comaroff and Jean Comaroff

Co-presented with the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Sydney

Ehtnicity Inc cover image

The politics of cultural identity, far from receding with the modernity, appears to have taken on new force in the wake of the cold war – especially with the triumphal rise of neoliberal capitalism on a global scale. This has yielded many efforts to explain the continued salience of ethnicity in a "new" world order that, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was widely predicted to dissolve difference in the face of global flows of people, objects, currencies, signs, styles, desires. Less attention, however, has been paid to a subtle shift in the nature of ethnicity: its commodification.

This lecture is devoted to showing that, increasingly, ethnic groups across the planet are beginning to act like corporations that own a "natural" copyright to their "culture" and "cultural products" – framed in terms, also, of heritage and indigenous knowledge – which they protect, often by recourse to the law, and on which they capitalize in much the same way as do incorporated businesses in the private sector. Why is this occurring? What are its political, economic, social, and ethical consequences? How is it transforming the nature of ethnicity and citizenship in the nation-state? And what are its theoretical implications for understanding such foundational social science concepts as culture and identity? These are the questions that will be addressed by distinguished anthropologists Professors Jean and John Comaroff in their presentation for Sydney Ideas.

Jean Comaroff is Bernard E. & Ellen C. Sunny Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology and of Social Sciences in the College, and in the Clinical Scholars Program at the University of Chicago. She has conducted fieldwork in southern Africa and Great Britain and is interested in colonialism, modernity, ritual, power, and consciousness. Her specific foci of study have included the religion of the Southern Tswana peoples (past and present); colonialism and Christian evangelism and liberation struggles in southern Africa; healing and bodily practice, and the making of local worlds in the wake of global "modernity" and commodification.

John Comaroff is the Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology and of Social Sciences in the College at the University of Chicago. He does research in southern Africa, concentrating on the Tswana peoples and is is interested in colonialism, postcoloniality, modernity, neoliberalism, social theory, and the history of consciousness; in politics, law, and historical anthropology.

The visit of Professors Jean and John Comaroff was jointly sponsored by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the China Studies Centre, the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry (SOPHI), the School of Social and Political Sciences (SPSS) and CCANESA; at the University of Sydney.

Contact: Dr Julia Kindt