The concept of cultural identity has become for many a convenient explanation for most of the world's political problems. In The Illusion of Cultural Identity Jean-François Bayart offers a sustained critique of this rationalization by dispelling the notion that fixed cultural identities do, in fact, exist.
In this highly sophisticated book, Bayart shows that the very idea of cultural identity prevents us from grasping the cultural dimensions of political action and economic development. Identities, he argues, are fluid, never homogeneous, and sometimes invented. Political repertoires are instead created through imagined, highly ambiguous aspects of culture—what he calls "imaginaires." For instance, the long beards worn by men in some fundamentalist groups are thought to be key to their core identities and thus assumed to be in conflict with modern values. These beards, however, do not stand in the way of the men's use of technology or their embrace of capitalism—an example Bayart uses to demonstrate the equivocality of cultural identity. The theoretical implications of Bayart's analysis emerge from a fascinating collection of historical examples that often surprise and always instruct.
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Jean-François Bayart is director of studies at the Centre nationale de recherche scientifique and professor of African politics at the Institut d'études politiques in Paris. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books, including The State in Africa: Politics of the Belly and The Criminalization of the State in Africa.
A work of great subtlety and erudition on a subject that is close to the heart of world politics and seems set to stay at the forefront of debate for years to come. Contrary to the view that the world is witnessing a clash of civilizations, Bayart demonstrates that cultures and their attendant identities are in constant flux. . . . It is most helpful to have this text available in English, as few, if any, anglophone political analysts seem able to produce a text of comparable range and erudition. -- Stephen Ellis, University of Leiden
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