National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity Among Scholars and Refugees

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Essay Excerpt

In this new theoretical crossroads, examining the place of refugees in the national orderof things becomes a clarifying exercise. On the one hand, trying to understand the circumstances of particular groups of refugees illuminates the complexity of the ways in which people construct, remember, and lay claim to particular places as "homelands" or "nations." On the other, examining how refugees become an object of knowledge and management suggests that the displacement of refugees is constituted differently from other kinds of deterritorialization by those states, organizations, and scholars who are concerned with refugees. Here, the contemporary category of refugees is a particularly informative one in the study of the sociopolitical construction of space and place.

The major part of this article is a schematic exploration of taken-for-granted ways of thinking about identity and territory that are reflected in ordinary language, in nationalist discourses, and in scholarly studies of nations, nationalism, and refugees. The purpose here is to draw attention to the analytical consequences of such deeply territorializing concepts of identity for those categories of people classified as "displaced" and "uprooted." These scholarly views will then be juxtaposed very briefly with two other cases. The first of these derives from ethnographic research among Hutu refugees who have lived in a refugee camp in rural Western Tanzania since fleeing the massacres of 1972 in Burundi. It will be traced how the camp refugees' narrative construction of homeland, refugee-ness, and exile challenges scholarly constructions and common sense. In the second case, the ethnography moves among those Hutu refugees in Tanzania who have lived (also since 1972) outside of a refugee camp, in and around the township of Kigomaon Lake Tanganyika. These "town refugees" present a third, different conceptual constellation of links between people, place, and displacement-one that stands in antagonistic opposition to views from the camp, and challenges from yet another direction scholarly maps of the national order of things. (Malkki, 25)

About the Author

Liisa H. Malkki is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. Her research interests include: the politics of nationalism, internationalism, cosmopolitanism, and human rights discourses as transnational cultural forms; the social production of historical memory and the uses of history; political violence, exile, and displacement; the ethics and politics of humanitarian aid; child research; and visual culture. Her field research in Tanzania exlored the ways in which political violence and exile may produce transformations of historical consciousness and national identity among displaced people. This project resulted in Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology Among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania (University of Chicago Press, 1995). In another project, Malkki explored how Hutu exiles from Burundi and Rwanda, who found asylum in Montreal, Canada, imagined scenarios of the future for themselves and their countries in the aftermath of genocide in the Great Lakes Region of Africa. Malkki’s most recent book, Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork (with Allaine Cerwonka) was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2007. Her most recent book-length project (based on fieldwork from 1995 to the present) examines the changing interrelationships among humanitarian interventions, internationalism, professionalism, affect, and neutrality in the work of the Finnish Red Cross in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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