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1 Is the ethnic issue a thing of the past, or does it now present new economic, social, cultural and political dynamics? In the wake of recent historical post-colonial or post-socialist upheavals that have redefined the correlations between states, nations, supranational entities (in particular Europe) and ethnic groups, the historical situation has clearly given rise to a renewal of the issues. The formation of urban minorities who participate in the economic and cultural life of metropolises in countries enjoying liberal and democratic stability (Zukin, 1996; Raulin, 2009; Caglar and Glick-Schiller, 2018) also displaces the ethnic issue: it is now as much about indigenous particularisms as about diasporic facts. This type of migration, served by new technologies to enable the maintenance of various forms of communication between its poles, has been growing in strength and becoming more diverse in ethnic and geographical terms. Yet, in this context of globalisation, which activates certain population flows while preventing others, movements remain unequal, both in terms of their causes (wars and local conflicts, economic, ecological, political and social factors, etc.) and their modalities. Faced with this paradoxical situation of the opening and tightening of national borders, who now asserts belonging to an ethnic group and in what form, or rather rejects in favour of other types of belonging, be they minority or majority?

2 In France, wariness of ethnic terms is the consequence of several historical factors that have reinforced each other. Some have denounced it in the name of a colonial practice that freezes shifting social realities in order to better exploit them (Amselle and M’Bokolo, 1999). Others claiming to be part of a contemporary anthropology, radically detached from a colonial ethnology, have opted for an analysis in terms of social relations of domination in which the ethnic dimension is invoked to negatively demonstrate the “production of the foreigner,” particularly in the French suburbs (Althabe, 1985). Finally, the ideological context in France promoting assimilation or integration in a “single, indivisible” Republic has influenced the ever sensitive use of this notion, including in social science research. As a result, “it is under the heading of immigration that research on interethnic relations has emerged, without the knowledge, i.e., without the theoretical tools and without awareness of external knowledge” (Rudder, 1999: 81).

3 From the 1990s onwards, however, anthropologists and sociologists of a different generation, freed from certain theoretical paradigms, began to examine the concept of ethnicity and to show its heuristic value (Martiniello, 1995; Poutignat and Streiff-Fénart, 1995; Cuche, 1998; Rudder, 1999; Raulin, 2000; Bertheleu, 2002; Palomares and Testenoire, 2010; Crenn and Kotobi; 2012). The debate is as lively as ever: some consider that the term ethnicity should be abandoned and that we should return to such terms as otherness or difference, while others negatively charge the use of terms such as ethnicisation or “racisation”, etc. Some argue that the use of the term ethnicity originating in the United States has no relevance beyond that country. While semantic tensions exist, this should not prevent us from observing these ethnic social facts that the social sciences must take into consideration and question in contexts that are far removed from one another, including as a vernacular category. And while there are problems, the anthropologist aims to study them primarily as those raised by the people who refer to them, and to integrate into the analysis the ways in which they raise them and experience them.

4 The objective of this topical collection of the Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales is to bring out these perspectives, both emic and etic, based on fieldwork carried out in the current context of a global economy, international migration, the growth of diasporas and minorities, the transformation of the relationship between rural and urban areas, and globalisation leading to a shrinking of the planet as a result of the generalised movement of people, ideas, goods, values and viruses. The aim of questioning this national unthought, however, is not to impose a single perspective on this complex and evolving ethnic issue, to define a dogma, but to set the terms of a sociologically, historically and anthropologically significant debate.

5 There is no unanimity on the subject, but rather a diversity of points of view, and this editorial attempts to convey the breadth of the theoretical elaborations and empirical situations that constantly make ethnic relations vary and evolve — to which anthropology and ethnology have been witnesses, the reflections, rejecting by eclipse the very term that gives its name to the discipline ethno-logy, only to reaffirm it at a later stage.

Ethnicity to Qualify Social Facts

6 Why ethnicity (l’ethnique)? Because we consider it to be a “modality of being” and not a “totality of being.” Nominalising the qualifying adjective (ethnique) better reflects this modal, non-encompassing character, which varies according to situations, life cycles and historical events (Raulin, 2000). In the French social sciences, many fields of research have adopted this linguistic form, which allows us to move away from overly fixed conceptions. Going beyond the circumscribed framework of sociology or anthropology of religions, “religion” (le religieux) (Hervieu-Léger, 1993) has seemed more suitable to describe reformulations of beliefs and practices, where ethnicity (l’ethnique) may also have its role (Tersigni et al., 2019). While coining the term “ethnoscape” — Appadurai (2001: 12) declared his penchant for the adjective “cultural” and his wariness of the noun “culture”:


“I find myself frequently troubled by the word culture as a noun but centrally attached to the adjectival form of the word, that is, cultural. […] If culture as a noun seems to carry associations with some sort of substance in ways that appear to conceal more than they reveal, cultural the adjective moves one into a realm of differences, contras and comparisons that is more helpful.”

8 In another area, the difference between feminine and femininity is clearly understood. While we depart here from an essentialist approach, we do not adopt a posture that would turn the ethnic dimension of collectives or individuals into “parodies” as Butler (2006) has argued in relation to gender. Even in the absence of “essence”, “original”, “true” or “authentic”, there is a “corpus of references” that is constantly being reinterpreted across time, groups and individuals, and moments of life. At stake is the interpretive freedom of each individual, their way of positioning themselves in relation to a cultural and social heritage (however reinvented it may be) and of sorting through these elements according to their position, aspiration, conception of themselves and of others. For although ethnicity is always combined with social relations based on race, gender, class, generation and nationality, and requires an intersectional analysis (Crenshaw, 2005; Poiret, 2005; Palomares and Testenoire, 2010), it differs from them in that it is more discrete than continuous, in the philosophical-mathematical sense of the terms. Comaroff and Comaroff (2009: 28) put it this way:


“We have long argued that ethnicity is neither a monolithic ‘thing’ nor, in and of itself, an analytic construct: that ‘it’ is best understood as a loose, labile repertoire of signs by means of which relations are constructed and communicated, through which a collective consciousness of cultural likeness is rendered sensible; with reference to which shared sentiment is made substantial. Its visible content is always the product of specific historical conditions…”

10 It is for this reason that it seems necessary to re-examine afresh the notion of “ethnic style” developed by several anthropologists, Leroi-Gourhan (1965) in France, by stressing the importance of learning, not only inculcation through education, but also the acquisition of “ethnic skills” throughout the course of one’s life, allowing for manifold learning in much the same way as multilingualism is practised. Juteau (2015) refers to the capacity of human beings — who came to humanity with an ethnic affiliation from birth — to connect with other groups once they are adults. These ethnic skills are therefore not mutually exclusive, and the mastery of other codes can be a source of pride, for example in the area of commercial practices (Raulin, 2000) or wine-making expertise (Crenn, 2021). It is in this perspective that the term “transethnic” is justified, as are “transidentity”, “transclass” (Jaquet, 2014), “transgender”, and especially “transnational”, as we shall see. This infatuation with the prefix trans-, which nowadays makes the term transdisciplinary preferable to interdisciplinary, reflects in its own way an awareness of the lability of social phenomena, which are made up of shifts in one direction and then in the other, and which take on this motility without necessarily being situated in-between. The “principle of compartmentalization” (Bastide, 1968) should be reconsidered in this perspective, as should that of “performance”, because contexts depend on the implementation and staging of these styles.

Renewing the Issues

11 The topical collection, as compiled in response to our call, includes two theoretical articles that open and close the ensemble. The first, by John and Jean Comaroff, entitled “The Wealth of Ethno-Nations: Notes on the Identity Economy,” gives the greatest breadth to the issue by considering together the movement of goods and commodities, values, as well as people and human groups. It takes stock of the new economic and political situation that is transforming ethnic issues by placing them in an international context dominated by neo-liberalism and the global market — and thus makes it possible to move away from the ideological contexts that link these issues to those of national integration. In contrast to this broad perspective, Hélène Bertheleu’s latest article entitled “Theoretical Topicality of Interethnic Relations. Ethnicity and Race in Francophone Sociology” develops a reflection limited to the evolution of research on migration in France, where the issue of race has supplanted the issue of ethnicity in recent decades.

12 The five articles, presenting a localised empirical approach, discuss current migratory situations, each of which, in its own way, involves an interface with France. In order of presentation, we look at situations involving France’s relations with Morocco, by Rim Affaya “Quatre demoiselles d’Avignon. Marchandisation du ‘mariage marocainen Europe et fin du sujet ethnique” (Four Demoiselles d’Avignon: Commodification of the “Moroccan wedding” in Europe and the end of the ethnic subject), Senegal (Rébecca Ndour “Le rôle de l’ethnicité dans les associations culturelles de migrants. Les Sereer de Dakar à l’Île-de-France” [The role of ethnicity in migrant cultural associations. The case of the Sereer people (Senegal) of Dakar and Île-de-France]), Comoros (Hugo Bréant “Les gens des îles voisines. Ethnicisation des relations sociales et place des immigrés comoriens dans les mosquées de Mayotte” [“The people of the neighboring islands”. Ethnicisation of social relations and the place of Comorian immigrants in the mosques of Mayotte]), Asia and more specifically China (Jing Wang “Imagined communities and republican recognition: The Asian diaspora in France”, see also the portfolio illustrating this article in this topical collection). We end with a study on the French hospital institution and its willingness to take into consideration an ethnic dimension in care (Rosane Braud “L’ethnicité dans le soin. Perceptions et possibilités d’agir des minorisés” [Ethnicity in care. Perceptions and possibilities of action of the minoritised]).

Ethnicity in the Global Economic Order

13 Jean and John Comaroff’s work, with the publication of Ethnicity, Inc. or “Ethnicity as a Business” (2009), contributed to demonstrating the extent to which ethnic identities and cultures can nowadays be converted into goods suitable for economic exchange in the global market. In this article, “The Wealth of Ethno-Nations,” they highlight the fact that in the contemporary world this reconfiguration is no exception, that cities, nations, migrations and diasporas are subject to the same logic, encouraging the literal and figurative assertion of an identity, a cultural specificity, so that it can be loaded with market value in the global economy, according to the process of so-called branding, of narrative or iconographic promotional advertising, comparable to magical rituals.

14 Thus, ethnicity appears to be remarkably compatible with modernity (or postmodernity) and, insofar as it can take advantage of this now hegemonic configuration (previous forms of globalisation having taken place in the past), it experiences a renewal both in terms of its meanings and of its practices. However, the authors are aware that this fit is neither uniform nor universal, as ethnic resources are not equivalent: neither the “wealth of nations” nor the “wealth of ethnicities” is equally distributed or can be equally valued, and it also depends on the internal volitions and external controls that govern them.

15 Culture walks on two feet, one progressing on the ground of the authentic, the inalienable, the other advancing at the pace of the market, of the consumable — what Warnier (1994) has described as “the paradox of the authentic commodity”. Furthermore, the cultural monopoly, circumscribed to a group, a family, a region or an individual, contributes to its exceptionality, its scarcity, and therefore its value on the market, thus proving “the capacity of inalienable heritage to generate alienable value” (Comaroff and Comaroff, in this topical collection). The most traditional example in this field is the printed book, the very symbol of culture in the French sense of the word, i.e. cultural creation or production linked to its author: “From the outset, printing appeared to be an industry governed by the same laws as other industries, and the book appeared as a commodity that humans manufactured above all to earn a living — even when [...] at the same time they were humanists and scholars” (Febvre and Martin, 1971: 165).

16 The notion of “cultural capital” is relevant to our topic and, by integrating its ethnic dimension, we come to the notion of tangible and intangible “ethnic heritage”. With the calling into question of “modern” conceptions of “progress”, climate change, the decline in biodiversity, traditional know-how appears to offer resources to be used for the survival of the planet (for example vernacular architectural techniques). Yet, traditional goods, particularly in the field of cooking and medicine, arts and crafts, sports and aesthetics, textiles and clothing, feed the global market and its consumption flows. The explosion of mass tourism during the 20th century scarcely needs to be underlined as it constitutes a major market for these ethnic goods, despite its slowdown due to the health crisis of the early 2020s. The society of the spectacle spans the global horizon, with each human group becoming alternately actor and spectator. But it is the internal market of societies that is also exposed to these calls for differentiated consumption, whether ecological, hyper-technological, religiously, morally normative, or ethnic, linked to certain customs and traditions. The emergence of ethnic marketing, unevenly developed between national entities, contributes to calling into question the previously dominant forms of mass consumption (Raulin, 2012).

17 This phenomenon not only has economic repercussions, but spreads to all levels of society’s functioning, whether political, ethical, legal or cultural, thus establishing a new form of embedding (Polanyi, 2009). Conversely, it seems that far from being threatened by it, ethnicity has incorporated the “market approach”.

18 The title of Jean and John Comaroff’s article “The Wealth of Ethno-Nations” evokes this new interlinking of formerly mutually exclusive binary registers. Tradition is no longer opposed to modernity, since today it may be imperative for the survival of certain groups “to be traditional first... if they want to be modern and ‘developed’.” Similarly, the “ethnic group” was for many years opposed to the “nation”, whereas the latter now tends to be defined as a common heritage and by a cultural homogeneity that is constantly reactivated by the promotion of tangible and intangible heritage. The distinction between these two types of society is thus only one of degree and not of nature; both are constructed as fictions of great sociological effectiveness, which are now entering a new era of competition.

19 Migration itself is indexed to its ethnic specificities, especially as a labour force (ethnically-indexed labour power). In this case, the collusion between nation and ethnic group is at its peak, as the value of migrants on the labour market of receiving countries is largely dependent on their ethnonational affiliation. In turn, exporting ethno-nations can explicitly assert a specific tradition of which their nationals are the custodians, as in the case of the Philippines, which presents itself as an expert in care. Ethnic specialisations can be highly valued (culturally-certified labour power), for example in the fields of scientific research or technological innovation, or on the contrary, they can be sought after for their lack of qualifications and their low cost on the labour market.

20 In Rim Affaya’s article “Quatre demoiselles d’Avignon”, the author develops a well-argued analysis of the contemporary supply and demand situation by presenting the case of a company specialised in matrimonial ceremonies. Making use of their dressmaking know-how and “a specifically female ‘circulation know-how’ (savoir-circuler)” (Schmoll, 2005), these entrepreneurs exploited the Moroccan caftan fashion and exported it to the South of France to a population of young women of the same origin. Building on their success, they gradually expanded their services to cover the entire wedding ritual, leading to cooperation with many related professions and meeting the demands of a culturally diverse public. The eloquent and precise account of this “success story” highlights the role of social networks and their skilful and expert use in the formation and expansion of a clientele well beyond its milieu of origin — which leads the author to challenge the term “ethnic enterprise”, the subject of study of a whole line of research in the 1980s-1990s which highlighted the capacity to mobilise limited and extended family resources.

21 In the “post-migratory” context studied by Rim Affaya, she considers it is key to reduce this festive economic dynamic to the common denominator of any capitalist enterprise. This thesis is supported by the remarkable profit that women entrepreneurs make not only from the “commodification” of a ritual of passage, but also from its online advertising, underlining the modernity of their appeal. But it can also be interpreted as one of the forms of integration of ethnicity into the society of the spectacle, in increasingly decontextualised ways.

22 It would be interesting to pursue this reflection by situating this enterprise in the long-standing history of “exotic” clothing fashions that have disseminated “orientalist” patterns or motifs for both aristocratic and working-class clients. Careful consideration should also be given to the ritual outbidding that these matrimonial offers can provoke in very diverse audiences, including national natives, subject to a certain ritual loss. However, we will end here by focusing on the title of this company’s products to attract consumers, namely “the Moroccan caftan” and “the Moroccan wedding”. Indeed, this formulation leads us to reflect on these common shifts between national and ethnic terminologies [1] that are given as equivalent, and in this case designate a cultural tradition and a craft skill. These semantic fusions are not trivial, but structural, as John and Jean Comaroff have also observed.

Ethnic Fact and National Fact

23 Between “ethnic group” and “nation”, polarities are constantly exchanged, overlapped and reversed to the extent that certain ethnic groups may want to proclaim themselves as nations (Gossiaux, 2002) — or nations may construct their identity on the basis of ethnicity, whether they assert it or not. Balibar expressed this point clearly in the 1980s:


“I call fictive ethnicity the community instituted by the national state. [...] No nation naturally has an ethnic basis, but as social formations become nationalised, the populations they include, allocate or dominate are ‘ethnicised’, that is, represented in the past or in the future as if they formed a natural community, possessing itself an identity of origin, of culture, of interests, which transcends individuals and social conditions.” (Balibar and Wallerstein, 2018: 160-161)

25 All cultural elements considered as received by “heritage” (land, inheritance, customs, languages, cultures, ancestors, religions, races) are alternately or jointly called upon to construct the “national community”. As a source of “ambiguous identity”, as Balibar and Wallerstein (2018) describe it, nationalism can serve the emancipation and liberation of peoples, as well as reinforce the rigidity of their identity.

26 Furthermore, Jean and John Comaroff consider it is important to show that the national community is also subject to this “identity economy” integrated into the global capitalist market: [2]


“The temporalities and trajectories of the identity economy lead in all directions. They run from nation to ethnicity, ethnicity to nation, and both to many other species of imagined community: locality, region, religion, race, and so on. All alike are vested in the commodification of culture and the presumption of shared essence. […] The early decades of the 21st century, identity increasingly appears as an economy — and, reciprocally, economy appears irreducibly caught up in identity.” (Comaroff and Comaroff, in this topical collection)

28 While all identities are constantly changing, whether ethnic or national, it is clear that today the latter has a fundamental advantage over the former, as “[i]ndeed, nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time.” (Anderson 2006: 16). Nevertheless, from the outside, national identity is seen as ethnic, conveying a lifestyle, a set of customs, a culture, a physical type, and as a result is subject to stereotyping by non-nationals.

Ethnicities, Citizenships, Religions

29 While the relationship between “ethnicities” and “nations” has appeared complex and subject to both reciprocal borrowing and strong opposition, the relationship with citizenship, understood as the democratic exercise of national belonging, and the relationship that develops within the same religious denomination, are no less unstable, fluctuating and highly dependent on national historical contexts and the migratory situations they generate.

30 Rébecca Ndour’s article on “Le rôle de l’ethnicité dans les associations culturelles de migrants” illustrates these fluctuations. The author studies the daily life of Sereer associations in the 2010s in Dakar, Senegal, and in Île-de-France. It appears to her that Sereers seeking urban integration in Dakar or citizen recognition in Paris deploy their “sereerity” in contrasting ways. In Dakar, it must free itself from the traditional image of the “peasant”, whereas in France, it is invoked as compatible with the values of the country of settlement and conducive to social ascension. Ethnic belonging can paradoxically, through the collective support of its members, serve a project of emancipation and integration. [3] In addition to the construction of these “ethnicity regimes”, Rébecca Ndour shows, by means of an ethnography from the inside, the extent to which the internal borders of ethnic groups (Juteau, 2015) are profoundly remodelled according to the sites of transplantation where new relations between elders and the young, men and women, and between social classes are played out over time. Finally, going beyond the apparent contradiction between ethnic dynamics and globalisation, the author demonstrates the extent to which these identities are now connected to transnational cultural references.

31 Hugo Bréant, in his article “‘Les gens des îles voisines’”, focuses his attention on the island of Mayotte in its relations with the other islands of the Comoros archipelago. Once forming part of a genuine unity, with family circulations, regular matrimonial alliances and the practice of a common religion, Islam, they are today subject to partitions that resemble ethnic divisions caused by the change in status of Mayotte, which became French in 2009. In this French overseas department, which now embodies the borders of Europe in the Indian Ocean, the inhabitants from the islands of the Comoros archipelago have become “immigrants”. Hugo Bréant perceives the emergence of an ethnic differentiation between Mahorais and Comorian Islam in the accession to the position of imam and in its exercise. The “ethnicisation of social relations” between Comorians and Mahorais is activated by this national and European territorialisation, while maintaining a local Mahorais religious rhetoric.

32 In these cases, in Senegal as in Mayotte recently, fellow-citizenship comes before citizenship: one is a fellow citizen, from the same kinship group, the same locality or milieu, before being an abstract citizen in the national framework. This is the distinction underlined by Benveniste (1980: 272-280) between the Greek polis and the Roman civitas. [4] It is again vividly illustrated in Jing Wang’s contribution, which contrasts two notions of citizenship, one reflecting the condition of a “people in diaspora” [5] (Marienstras, 2014), the other constituting a nation-state at the head of the single, “indivisible” French people.

33 Jing Wang, in her article examining the forms of public existence of “the Asian diaspora in France”, reopens the debate sparked by Anderson’s work by presenting some public aspects of the Asian diaspora in France, and suggests new interpretations in this context of his now classic formulation: “[A]ll communities … are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined” (Anderson, 2006: 20). In the national style, Anderson continues, it is citizenship (and “the people”) that sets the tone; in relation to ethnicity, it is kinship and lineage that set the pattern. [6] In both registers of society, Balandier (2006: 16) also perceived that “power is formed and maintained only by transposition, by the production of images, by the manipulation of symbols and their organisation in a ceremonial framework.” Jing Wang’s article allows us to grasp the face-to-face ceremonial postures and the implementation of these national and ethnic styles over time — where the “figuration of representations” (Chivallon, 2007: 157) is displayed. Thus, we can see how two “imagined communities” can reflect gratifying echoes back to each other when their interests are in unison, but also how misunderstandings and disappointments set in when divergent ideological principles appear.

Institutions Constituting the National “We”

34 Public service institutions such as the Post Office, SNCF (the French National Railways), schools, hospitals and socio-cultural centres (Billion, 2007; Crenn et al., 2007) could all have been the subject of a reflection on the way they react to new migratory situations and ethnic issues that run through them — while today they are grappling with transformations that bring them progressively closer to the functioning of companies in a neo-liberal capitalist context (Jounin, 2021), as Jean and John Comaroff underline in their article on national-type institutions.

35 Rosane Braud, in her article on “L’ethnicité dans le soin”, focuses on the hospital and the implementation since 2010 of a health policy oriented towards a category of patients described as “immigrants” with the aim of combating inequalities in relation to diabetes. What does this recognition of ethnic specificities in hospitals mean in contemporary France? By introducing such recognition into care protocols, does the hospital modify the arcana of French citizenship? Rosane Braud’s article allows us to grasp the contradictions at work in the hospital institution. While health workers are trying to counter health inequalities, this measure paradoxically turns out to be discriminatory. However, the portraits of patients show that while the culturalist interpretation of their eating habits is certainly experienced as infantilising, it can sometimes be thwarted and turned to their advantage.

Box 1

Schools, a republican institution par excellence, which has as one of its explicit missions to ensure that all its students, including migrant children or descendants of migrants, learn French citizenship, deserved a place in this topical collection. The first research on “diversity” in schools (Dubet and Lapeyronnie, 1992) focused mainly on discrimination phenomena (Lorcerie, 2003; Felouzis et al., 2005; Belkacem et al., 2019). The most recent studies have looked at the ordinary worlds of migrant childhoods in order to grasp the current “ethnic styles” experienced within them. Once again faced with the arrival of a growing number of exiled children from various regions of the world (Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Syria, Kosovo, Iraq, Sudan, Ukraine, Mali, Guinea), French schools are de facto permeated by the issue of ethnicity, calling into question the limits of the “republican” training of teachers in an increasingly multicultural context (Schiff, 2012; Clavé-Mercier and Schiff, 2018; Tersigni, 2019; Armagnague et al., 2021; Rigoni and Crenn, 2021).

Ethnic or Racial Issues?

36 Hélène Bertheleu’s article “Ethnicity and Race in Francophone Sociology” provides a highly relevant conclusion to this topical collection. The author studies the conceptual fluctuations that have taken place in France over the last fifty years. Breaking away from a sociology of immigration dating back to the 1970s, from the 1990s onwards the issue of ethnicity gave rise to both empirical research and theoretical advances, only to be replaced and overtaken by the issue of race since the 2000s. [7] Her analysis puts forward a set of carefully analysed situational explanations (including postcolonial schools of research, [8] intersectional perspectives, European directives and incentives from the State and local authorities to fight against inequalities and discrimination, participatory research). The result is a “con-fusion” between the two types of issue, which tends to relate all the singularities of ethnic social relations to “oppositional identities”, reacting to forms of oppression and domination. Without dismissing the reality and salience of forms of ethnic and racial hierarchisation and domination (Raulin, 2016), Hélène Bertheleu argues in favour of continuing to reflect on ethnic identities, which are shaped by both internal and external boundaries (Juteau, 2015), and which fluctuate, expanding or shrinking depending on the historical context. Instead of the figure of the victim, and the term “ethnicisation” — which is ambiguous in that it suggests a social pathology — she proposes a conceptualisation that takes into account attitudes and people who are actors in their own cultural designs, endowed with their own agency. Yet, this notion remains complex, intersectional and dependent on ties based on gender, race, class and life-cycle.

Ethnicity of Minorities, Ethnicity of Majorities

37 Although this theoretical positioning seems to be shared by several of the contributions, it does not constitute a new doctrine, as there are still significant differences in the use of the terms “ethnic”, “ethnicity” and “ethnicisation”. It is neither a promotion of ethnicity-in-itself, nor a value judgement on its persistence, but it advocates the recognition of this sociological fact which, for ideological reasons, is often ignored. As Hall (2019) points out, while this dimension is the result of a historical construct, it acts — in correlation with race and nation — on the perception of differences and cannot be relegated to the level of an illusion.

38 Thus, the totality of this reflection leads to a proposal that has been made by many authors in the past, but whose voices still deserves to be heard. Pierre-Jean Simon, [9] Danielle Juteau, Véronique de Rudder, Linda Pietrantonio and, more recently, Hélène Bertheleu have questioned the fact that the qualifying adjective “ethnic” is systematically reserved for minority populations, thus leaving majorities outside this semantic field. These researchers argue that it should also apply to the latter, who, without being aware of it, are nevertheless permeated by these logics, often re-characterised using similar terms (regions, religions, languages, customs, heritages, corporations, etc.). Are majorities ethnic groups without knowing it?

39 The issue of “French gastronomy”, which has become political, provides an example in the field of cuisine and food products, an area that has experienced generalised ethnic globalisation. As a focal point of “national style” (Crenn et al., 2010), it is broken down into “terroirs” [10] (regional specificities), protected or controlled designations of origin, neutral terminologies that avoid any ethnic reference. Yet, their products are locally rooted, based on regional traditions, craftsmanship, family know-how and ancestral traditions, which give them added value. It should however be underlined that these “terroirs” have always been cultivated by migrants of all origins — for example, in the Bordeaux countryside by Spanish, Portuguese, North African, Polish, Russian and Saharan agricultural workers — and have long been owned and exploited by wealthy entities, both foreign (British, American, Japanese, Russian, now Chinese) (Crenn, 2021) and French (insurance companies, industrial groups, etc.). At the same time, food “quality”, “organic” or “local”, creates a significant need for low-cost immigrant labour, referred to by some bosses as “home-based outsourcing” (as the terroirs cannot go abroad, foreign labour comes to the terroirs).

40 The consumption of these products can be based on food customs that are seen as part of a certain francité de goût (French taste), or even of distinction (Bourdieu, 1979), with the power to disqualify those who do not conform to them, relegating them to their otherness. And yet, in this field in particular, transethnic practices are a daily occurrence: as many menus as there are tables can be served to the citizens of a country. Furthermore, today, this famous “French gastronomy” (Hubert, 2000) is promoted by chefs from different cultural and national backgrounds, who appropriate it, enhance it, reinvent it and make it grow - just as they can promote “authentically” foreign culinary traditions and specificities. There is a proliferation of initiatives to promote culinary traditions, which are by no means exclusive of each other, as shown by the Mission Française du Patrimoine et des Cultures Alimentaires (French Mission for Food Heritage and Cultures) [11] and trade associations such as Les Grandes Tables [12] or Chefs in Africa, [13] which work to promote African cuisines in France and in Africa.

41 This topical collection supports this recognition of an ethnic reality that does not disappear with the accession of former migrants to the status of citizen. Populations may claim that their ethnic specificity should be brought into line with the status of the nation-state, as was recently the case in the Balkans (Gossiaux, 2002), or on the contrary, they may assert that with the civic nation, a universal consciousness is acquired (with France as the paradigm of this conception), but the ethnic experience retains its overt or covert effectiveness.

42 This topical collection also provides key elements to consider the status of the consumer, which has also been generalised as a result of the extension in breadth and depth of the global market. The consumption of ethnic products has become widespread, across all classes, and often unknowingly. While “we have never been modern” (Latour, 1991), this topical collection allows us to affirm that we are both modern and traditional, that the relationship between the two registers is not one of opposition or exclusion, but one of tension and collusion, in a sense dialogic. The fact that the ethnic component remains active among the citizens of a state governed by the rule of law certainly means that it induces behaviour in conformity with the values, practices and customs of their respective environments, but also, and this is an important point, that it teaches a capacity to distance oneself from them and to reinterpret the customs that characterise it. These reformulations owe a great deal to adjustments, diversions, borrowings, whether temporary or permanent, from other practices, perceived as coming from elsewhere.

Can We Do without the Ethnic Category?

43 Can we get by without categories? All social categories have a certain degree of performativity — age, professional or disciplinary affiliation, nationality, class, race, gender, etc. But there have always been countless ways of assuming these categories, ethnic or otherwise (Brody, 1995). It is therefore important to restore to the ethnic category that dimension of individual interpretation, which means that some people can “perform” it in a strict and purist way, others in an open, liberal way. This is the distinction Anderson (2011) has made between “cosmos” and “ethnos”, by contraction of “cosmopolitan” and “ethnic”. These are both “ideal-types” in the Weberian sense, and Anderson argues that they can be seen at work in everyone, with “cosmos” or “ethnos” dominating depending on personalities, circumstances, places, moments in one’s life, etc. Ethnic groups, like others, are therefore subject to these oscillations, and as we have seen, one ethnic skill does not prevent one from learning or sharing another — which is why we considered it necessary to add the prefix trans- to the already rich vocabulary of sociological terms by proposing the term transethnic.

44 Can we deny the freedom of those assigned or asserting belonging to an ethnic category, especially in the context of migration? By definition, women and men in migration have made a choice by leaving their native land, opting for another destiny, in another society. The desire to start again under a different horizon to that of their ancestors, at the cost of an emotional and cultural uprooting, shows a capacity to extricate themselves from sociological determinism and attests to a sense of individual action — out of freedom and/or necessity — which then requires a complex period of negotiation between values that may be contradictory.

45 The contemporary wariness of ethnicity is not related to an atavistic dimension, assimilated to an archaism, but to its vitality and resilience. Far from dissolving in economic globalisation, it has found a new lease of life and contributes to structuring cultural consumption; while distinct from national, religious and racial dimensions, it never ceases to shape them; often the subject of assignment, it prevents neither circulation nor the adoption of other references of belonging. It is these recent changes, and its multiple reappropriations, that make it necessary to try to identify its dynamics, without claiming to make an exhaustive analysis. As we close this topical collection, we are not closing the questions that have driven it and that have continued to evolve throughout its preparation, notably thanks to the excellent quality of the articles that this call for contributions has generated.


  • [1]
    On these “national labelling” processes for ethnic, regional or minority cultural expressions, whose exposure benefits from transnational circulations, see Aterianus-Owanga et al. (2019).
  • [2]
    We can cite the example of an advertisement for a brand of women’s lingerie, with the title FRENCH LIBERTÉ accompanying various photos of women in underwear (note the combination of English and French, global and local, with English applied to the word “French”). Liberté here becomes a French branded product with global consumer value. On the occasion of the brand’s centenary, Le Parisien (28/09/2016) wrote under the title “Emancipation of women’s bodies”: this lingerie house “sought to celebrate this notion of freedom with an effortless collection, which characterises French ultra-sexy chic so well. [...] A real French-style Victoria’s Secret Fashion show [Victoria’s Secret, an American lingerie brand, taking its name from English Victorian fashion].”
  • [3]
    Community support can be a vehicle for integration, as expressed by the Chicago School through Robert E. Park as early as the 1920s-1930s. On these issues of integration in different European national contexts, see the contributions of Rex (1996), Bastenier (2004), Geschiere (2009), Hajjat (2012) and Joly (2017).
  • [4]
    According to Benveniste (1980: 278), Civitas, a “name of community”, refers to a group of fellow citizens “founded on a relationship of mutuality between people of the same affiliation, whether this is based on kinship, class or profession,” whereas Polis represents an “abstract body”, an entity “independent of men, and its only material basis is the extent of the territory on which it is founded.” This distinction is thus perpetuated from antiquity to the present day, where it is mainly related to the distinction between the German concept (ethno-nation) and the French concept (civic nation). See Brubaker (1992) and Gossiaux (2002).
  • [5]
    On this issue, see Trémon (2021).
  • [6]
    This notion of “imagined community” can be related to that of “subjective belief” developed by Max Weber in 1921: “We shall call ‘ethnic groups’ (other than ‘kinship’ groups), those human groups that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization and migration; this belief must be important for the propagation of group formation; conversely it does not matter whether an objective blood relationship exists. Ethnic membership [Gemeinsamkeit] differs from the ‘kinship group’ precisely by being a presumed identity, not a group with concrete social action, like the latter. In our sense, ethnic membership does not constitute a group; it only facilitates group formation of any kind particularly in the political sphere [Vergemeinschaftung]”.
  • [7]
    It is interesting to note that in North America, the issue of race was dominant until the 1950s, before being overtaken by the issue of ethnicity, covering various forms of migration and minority diversity, both indigenous and non-indigenous (including French-speaking Canadians) (cf. Simon, 1993). On the role that this French-speaking Canadian minority played in the implementation of multicultural policies as a democratic project, see in particular Doytcheva (2011).
  • [8]
    These were very slow to establish themselves in France. See Stoler (2016: 147) who, at the time could still write: “The more important question is precisely what has constituted the ‘configuration of the scientific field’ and what conventions of knowledge production have made France’s history of a racialized polity so marginal to so many of France’s cherished intellectual elite.”
  • [9]
    “There is no reason other than an ideological one to attribute ethnicity only to certain groups and peoples. [...] To perpetuate this practice of recognising ethnicity only in others would be to deliberately submit to the logic of social classifications” (Simon, 1993).
  • [10]
    Mass distribution has taken advantage of this: “Reflets de France”, “Nos régions ont du talent”, etc. From this consumerist perspective, “the end of the terroir” (Weber, 1983) seems to be over and is experiencing a revival.
  • [11]
    In 2010, the Mission Française du Patrimoine et des Cultures Alimentaires (French Mission for Food Heritage and Culture) obtained the entry of the “French gastronomic meal” on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (ICH).
  • [12]
  • [13]

The issue of ethnicity has always been a controversial one, especially in France — whether on the mainland in relation to regional minorities or migrants, or in the French overseas territories. As a former colonial Empire and an epitome of secular republicanism, France resists use of any ethnic identification, including in the academic world and anthropology. This topical collection reconsiders this position and takes stock of the “ethnic situations” in relation to the new postcolonial and post-socialist historical conditions, the generalisation of the global market, the accelerated movement of goods and people, as well as the intensification of the diasporic phenomenon. The various contributions provide insights into specific ethnic affiliations, seen from the inside, in diverse ethnographic fields related to migration to France, from Senegal, Morocco, Comoros, Asia, or within the framework of particular French institutions.
This editorial seeks to give space to consideration of the issue of ethnicity, emancipating it from its current national suppression in France, by connecting it to other currents of thought developed by non-French, French-speaking sociologists, such as Danielle Juteau, and English-speaking sociologists, in particular Jean and John Comaroff, who have addressed this topical collection in diverse national contexts (Quebec, United States, South Africa, China, etc.). The authors of this editorial and coordinator of this topical collection emphasise that ethnic affiliations show a real capacity of adaptation, paradoxically using it as a means of integration into the French urban economy and republican landscape, as a way to promote their form of citizenship. They show how this sociological category can be interpreted by individuals in a rigid way, or with openness to other ethnic markers, thus demonstrating “transethnic competence”. They conclude that, far from being an archaism, ethnic dynamics are always at work in contexts dominated by national representations. Moreover, ethnic identification, one of the modalities of perception of otherness, which should not be limited to minorities as it also concerns majority groups, deserves a specific approach, distinct from race and discrimination. This editorial and topical collection of the Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales seek to contribute, from the perspective of the case of France to the general and international reflection on the processes of ethnic differentiation in a globalised world.

  • ethnic
  • ethnicity
  • ethno-nations
  • minorities
  • majorities
  • migration
  • diasporas
  • circulation
  • imagination
  • market
  • globalisation
  • associations
  • hospital
  • religion
  • race
  • Asians
  • Moroccans
  • France
  • Senegal
  • Mayotte
  • Comoros

Éditorial : Nouvelles questions ethniques

La question ethnique a toujours été polémique, en particulier en France — que ce soit dans l’« Hexagone » envers les cultures régionales ou migrantes, ou dans les territoires d’outre-mer. En tant qu’ancien Empire colonial et incarnation d’un républicanisme laïque, cette nation résiste à tout pratique d’identification ethnique, y compris dans le monde de la recherche et en anthropologie. Ce dossier se propose de dépasser cette position et de prendre en considération les « situations ethniques » en relation avec les nouvelles conditions historiques postcoloniales et postsocialistes, la généralisation du marché global, la circulation accélérée des biens et des personnes et la multiplication des diasporas. Les différentes contributions fournissent des perspectives de l’intérieur des appartenances ethniques relevant de divers terrains ethnographiques tous en relation avec des migrations vers la France, issues du Sénégal, Maroc, Comores, Asie, ou dans le cadre d’institutions françaises spécifiques. Cet éditorial entend donner sa place à la question ethnique, au-delà de son refoulement national, en l’intégrant à d’autres courants de pensée portés par des sociologues de langue française mais non français comme Danielle Juteau, ou de référence anglo-américaine comme Jean et John Comaroff, qui l’ont traité dans d’autres contextes nationaux (Québec, États-Unis, Afrique du Sud, Chine, etc.). Les autrices de cet éditorial et coordinatrices de ce dossier thématique mettent en évidence que les affiliations ethniques font preuve d’une réelle capacité d’adaptation, l’utilisent paradoxalement comme moyen de participation à l’économie urbaine et au paysage républicain, promouvant ainsi leur forme de citoyenneté. Elles montrent que la catégorie sociologique ethnique peut être interprétée par les individus de façon rigide mais aussi ouverte, par l’adoption d’autres marqueurs ethniques que ceux adoptés pendant leur socialisation première, faisant ainsi preuve de « compétence transethnique ». Elles concluent que loin de s’apparenter à un archaïsme, les dynamiques ethniques sont toujours à l’œuvre dans des contextes dominés par les représentations nationales. L’identification ethnique, une des modalités de la perception de l’altérité, ne saurait cependant être limitée aux minorités et concerne tout aussi bien les groupes majoritaires ; elle mérite une attention spécifique, distincte de la race ou de la discrimination. Cet éditorial et ce dossier de la Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales cherchent à participer, du point de vue de l’intérieur du cas français, à la réflexion générale et internationale sur les processus de différenciation ethnique dans un monde globalisé.

  • Asiatiques
  • associations
  • diaspora
  • ethnicité
  • Marocains
  • minorités
  • race
  • religion
  • migrations
  • globalisation
  • circulations
  • marché
  • ethnique
  • ethno-nations
  • majorités
  • imagination
  • hôpital

Editorial: Nuevas cuestiones étnicas

La cuestión étnica siempre ha sido polémica, particularmente en Francia — sea en Francia metropolitana con las culturas regionales o migrantes, o en los territorios franceses de ultramar. Como antiguo Imperio colonial y como representación de un republicanismo laico, esta nación resiste toda práctica de identificación étnica, incluso en el ámbito de la investigación y de la antropología. Este dosier de la Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales se propone ir más allá de esta posición y tener en cuenta las «situaciones étnicas» en relación con las nuevas condiciones históricas poscoloniales y postsocialistas, la generalización del mercado global, la circulación acelerada de mercancías y de personas, así como la multiplicación de las diásporas. Las diferentes contribuciones proporcionan perspectivas desde el interior de los grupos étnicos que atañen a terrenos etnográficos diversos, todos en relación con migraciones hacia Francia, provenientes de Senegal, Marruecos, las Comoras, Asia, o en el marco de instituciones francesas específicas. Este editorial pretende legitimar la cuestión étnica, más allá de su rechazo nacional, incorporándola a otros corrientes de pensamiento defendidos por sociólogos francófonos que no sean franceses como Danielle Juteau, o de referencia anglo-americana como Jean y John Comaroff, quienes la utilizaron en otros contextos nacionales (Quebec, Estados Unidos, Sudáfrica, China, etc.). Las autoras de este editorial y las coordinadoras de este número destacan el hecho de que las afiliaciones étnicas demuestran una verdadera capacidad de adaptación, la usan de manera paradójica como medio de participación en la economía urbana y en el panorama republicano, impulsando así su forma de ciudadanía. Demuestran que los individuos pueden interpretar la categoría sociológica étnica tan de manera rígida como de manera abierta, por la adopción de indicadores étnicos diferentes de los adoptados durante su primera socialización, así que dan muestras de «competencia transétnica». Concluyen que lejos de parecerse a un arcaísmo, las dinámicas étnicas siguen en acción en contextos predominados por las representaciones nacionales. Sin embargo, la identificación étnica, que es una de las modalidades de la percepción de la alteridad, no se podría limitar a las minoridades y concierne también a los grupos mayoritarios; merece una atención específica, distinta a la raza o a la discriminación. Este editorial y este número procuran participar, desde el punto de vista interior del caso francés, en la reflexión general e internacional en cuanto a los procesos de diferenciación étnica en un mundo globalizado.

  • raza
  • etnicidad
  • Francia
  • religión
  • Senegal
  • diáspora
  • migraciones
  • globalización
  • asociaciones
  • mercado
  • étnico
  • etno-nación
  • circulaciones
  • imaginación
  • hospital
  • Mayotte
  • minoridades
  • mayoridades
  • asiáticos
  • marroquíes
  • Comoras
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Anne Raulin
Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, University of Paris Nanterre, Sophiapol, IFK Senior Fellow, University of Linz in Vienna (Austria); araulin[at]
Chantal Crenn
Professor of Anthropology, University of Montpellier Paul Valéry, UMR SENS (DUA) and UMR Passages; chantal.crenn[at]
Translated by
Alexandra Poméon O’Neill
Translated by
Katherine Booth
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 24/08/2023
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