G. Carter Bentley’s practice theory is a popular approach in understanding how ethnicity is constructed and ethnic identity is maintained. Here we shift from boundaries to focus on people’s patterns of experiences, both objective and subjective. Bentley draws on Bordieu’s concepts of “habitus” and “practice”. Bordieu argues that the objective conditions, mediated by systems of symbolic representations, generate in different persons dispositions to act in different ways (Bentley 1987: 28) Habitus compromises “…a set of generative schemes that produce practices and representations that are regular without reference to overt rules and that are goal directed without requiring conscious selection of goals or mastery of methods achieving them.” (as quoted in Bentley, Ibid.,). Hence habits become a mechanic way of being, acting and thinking, developed through 1) social practices, 2) shared experiences, 3) experimentation and 4) comprehension of those relationships or difference at both the conscious and unconscious levels. There is constant interplay between these levels (collectively and individually).
Practice is a concept linked to the Marxist tradition of emphasizing power relations. This is connected to ethnic identity in that to look at experiences people go through we have to distinguish between the different domains of experience and social practice. Analysis of different domains will tell us how they influence people’s perception of the world, of their place in society as members of a group. Because this process involves interrelationships, it is important to focus on the experience of interaction. Secondly, there must be an analysis of discourses by the state (i.e. laws, policies etc.) and how they are articulated, and how the discourses of leaders of ethnic groups find resonance by their group. Both these levels of analysis help us understand ethnicity as an ideology and how ethnic identity cannot be kept separate from experience and social practice.
Bentley: ethnicity and practice
Bentley demonstrates the relationship between patterns of practice and sensations of ethnic affinity by the example of a Marano woman who has struggled with a sense of ambivalent ethnicity: “…a feeling that she is neither here nor there but instead limited in a system Philippine social context of categorical identities” (Bentley 1987: 29). Soraya’s experience illustrates the value of the theory of practice. Sensations of ethnic affinity are founded on common life experience and of the preconscious habitus it generates that gives members of an ethnic group their sense of being familiar to each other (Bentley 1987: 33). This captures both the nature of shared habitus (common memories that have become unconscious) and the manner in which habitus is realized (the same “rhythm of living”) (Bentley 1987: 33).
The theory of practice also reveals an apparent paradox of simultaneous emotional dependence on an situational manipulation of ethnic identity. This paradox is due to the lack of an exact correlation between the social context and a perception of difference (Bentley 1987: 35). For example, since ethnic identity derives from situationally shared elements of multidimensional habitus, it is possible for an individual to “…possess several different situationally relevant but nonetheless emotionally authentic identities and to symbolize all of them in terms of descent” (Bentley 1987: 35). Yet while shared descent is symbolically constructed, conceptions of ethnic identity are not chosen arbitrarily: “Ethnic identities are anchored internally in experience as well as externally in the cognitive distinctions in terms of which experience is ordered” (Bentley 1987: 36). Soraya’s story supports this position. She shared different aspects of her life with different categories of people. She has chosen to live among the Muranao and enjoys close relations with some members of her family, while at the same time feeling alienated from the very community she chose to live in.
The case of Soraya demonstrates that the theory of practice can explain the effective focus of ethnic identity, its multidimensionality, context sensitivity and symbolic formulation (something that neither the instrumentalist and primordialist models failed to do). The theory explains “…the objective grounding for perceptions and feelings for ethnic affinity and difference, and also accounts for the clear but irregular association between social structure and ethnic consciousness” (Bentley 1987: 40). Hence the need to focus on the objective context and subjective conscious of identity.
Bentley also focuses on how ethnic identity and ethnicity in the modern world have become important as a medium for collective action. These forms, according to Bentley, cannot be accounted for by shared sentiment (as described by the instrumentalist approach). Rather, ethnic groups are “products of complex social formations and themselves represent complex social formations.” (Bentley 1987: 40). Ethnic groups can be viewed as demarcating fields of “symbolic domination”, reproduction of which depends on the unconscious work of Habitus (as is the case, for example, with respect to kinship, or a hierarchy that exists when certain groups dominate as a result of the cultural division of labor). However, regimes of symbolic domination do not exist in a vacuum. They must constantly adjust to changing requirements of production and reproduction (Bentley 1987: 43) A breakdown in such regimes (as a result of leadership, for example), will necessarily lead to a crisis in ethnic identity. Symbolic domination, then, requires “…sufficient integration of preconscious assumptions about the world to maintain a functional complementarity of perception and motivation among leaders and followers” (Bentley 1987: 44). If such functional complementarity breaks down (i.e. as a response to political or economic changes) leading to discontinuity or “epistemological breaks”, new junctures of regimes will persist (Bentley 1987: 45). An often cited example of such identity breaks occurred in America’s black community. Political mobilization led to the appropriation and transformation of an imposed identity (“black”) into a positive assertion of collective identity. The shift in labels from black to Afro-American, Bentley argues, did not only mark the creation of a new political movement, but also “…provided a charter for black ethnicity, for a new and potentially enduring sense of shared identity, experience, and purpose” (Bentley 1987: 45).
Thus, in order to properly account for ethnic group formation and mobilization, one must 1) identify dimensions of common experience and habitus that underlie the ability of ethnic leaders to mobilize their followers, and 2) analyze how ethnic appeals implicate conceptions of personal and group identity in order to account for their effectiveness (Bentley 1987: 47).