How Creativity Helps Build Identities and Nations

Political Science professor Dennis Galvan presents the Spring Quarter African Studies Distinguished Lecture.

asdl-logoOn May 27, Dennis Galvan, a professor of political science and international studies from the University of Oregon, presented the Spring Quarter African Studies Distingushed Lecture. Galvan’s upcoming book on Everyday Nation Building: Creativity, Culture and Political Community in Senegal and Indonesia, discusses how people in Senegal and Indonesia rework traditions and structure of kinship, as part of a greater argument against thinking of cultural identity as static.

Galvan spoke on the theoretical concepts, empirical findings, and implications of his research in Senegal and Indonesia. Though he is a political scientist, Galvan said he has “the spirit of an anthropologist” in thinking about how these peoples shaped the networks around them; in doing so, he destabilizes the underlying assumptions of cultural evolution and nation building, questioning stable ethno-cultural or “tribal” blocks misaligned with territorial boundaries.

He compared his approach to that of Alfred Russell Wallace, who spoke of a cabinet of specimens as a metaphor for categorizing human actions and behavior. Instead of a structuralist approach symbolized by a “cabinet of specimens,” Galvan asked us to consider a “junkyard” instead, thinking of nation building as a mix of rummaging around and creative thinking.

“Everyday interactions are a source of creativity,” Galvan noted, and creativity is both individual and social. Order, culture, and heritage are not formative, he noted, but are part of a greater “junkyard” from which social orders are generated and disrupted.

Galvan introduced the Senegalese example of the Mourides, members of a large Islamic Sufi order. Through the use of recombinatory tinkering—a key phrase for Galvan—this monastic, solitary, and studios order remade themselves under Sheikh Ibrahima Fall, one of Bamba’s first disciples, in a creative reformulation of Sufism which then becomes part of the most important religious movement in west Africa.

Galvan stated that ethnicity, religion, and group identity are all processes subject to such creative tinkering. He discussed “joking kinship” in Senegal which created fictive kinships as part of greeting rituals. He then gave examples of how this ritualized joking kinship is transformed in patterns of dismantling, tinkering, and recombinant belonging, and how these rituals are creatively used by political entrepreneurs as a “peace building” tool.

Ultimately, to the extent that we want to make sense of the dynamics of nation building, Galvan said, it is “critical to follow the bottom-up of creative innovation.” He argued that while structuralists believe structures have force, they do not adequately recognize the influence of human creativity on those same structures.

The African Studies Distinguished Lecture is presented by the African Studies Workshop and the Center for International Studies.

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