Cornell 2000

From Projecting Power

Reading: Stephen Cornell (2000), “We are a people: Narrative and multiplicity in constructing ethnic identity”, pp. 41-53.

Main Argument[edit]

Historical and cultural context in conversations revolving around communities is important as shown in the first interaction with the tribal leader of the Native American reservation they were visiting. History is what creates these ethnic identities and therefore it remains the core of them. This history becomes a narrative, especially in times of disturbance around the community. What is being built when we construct an ethnic identity?

  • In order to discuss the current economic and political situations of different ethnic groups or communities, we must first understand their context: the events they have experienced, what they have done, and who they are
  • Three main points:
    • Identities often take a narrative form
    • This narrative form usually becomes most salient when the formerly stable foundation of collective identity is called into question
    • The narrativization of identity is tied to power relations

Ethnicity and Narrative[edit]

According to the doc, ethnicity is a concept that will forever keep changing over time because the people are constantly changing and doing different things that could have an effect on their ethnicity. This is not just a label that people use, ethnic identities are composed of all the situations and narratives (whether they be positive or negative) that this group has had to go through. These narratives can change over the passage of time but they still hold a central influence on the group identity and helps them discover how their ethnicity ties to society as a whole -An example of this would be Michael Arlen tying the Armenian genocide to Armenian Identity

  • At one level, ethnic identities are labels, but they are not just labels: they have consequences and characteristics, and involve distributing things among people that can provoke or incite action
    • Labels often signify deeper meanings that give them power
  • Creating or assigning an ethnic identity means creating a story around what it means to be part of a particular group
    • This story has a subject, action, and value that makes the group feel something, whether that feeling is good, bad, guilty, self-righteous, etc.
    • The label becomes a "condensation" of that story
  • Narrativization involves three steps: selection, plotting, and interpretation
    • Selection: selecting the events to be used as part of the story
    • Plotting: causally linking the events
    • Interpretation: making claims about what the events signify and to what extent they define the group
  • Narratives become ethnic when ethnic boundaries are the "key organizing principle" in these three steps
  • The narrative might not be something consciously thought of by each member of the ethnic group, but it plays a prominent role in defining the ethnic category

Narrative and Rupture[edit]

As mentioned before, the narrative that surrounds ethnicity can change as time progresses, this is more bound to happen if there's a big conflict or threat to the group. These threats and ruptures can come from various things such as migration and politics within the group (or surrounding it). Eventually, these ruptures become added to their history and identity and thus creates another shift in the narrative -An example of this took place in Tanzania when Hutu refugees fortified the unity of the group by repeating their history as a way to understand the situation they were stuck in

  • Narratives create a sense of order out of the "unexpected or disturbing"
    • Ethnically based collective identities arise out of a search for this order after a period of crisis
  • Events like migration and changes in economic or political situation might call for a renarration
  • Narratives are used not just for sensemaking, but also to create common bonds against threats or oppressors
  • Once the crisis period comes to an end, the process of creating a new narrative usually dies down and the new narrative either becomes the established story or narrative itself takes a backseat to group label

Narrative and Power[edit]

There is a relationship between narrative and power that can be seen in two different ways. The first way shows us that it matters who gets to even tell the stories and narratives around a group and furthermore, who gets to be believed. A group's history shapes the way they are seen by everyone and therefore there is a key difference between someone who belongs in the group’s version compared to an outsider’s version. It's important to note that there can also be a clash between members of the same group who have a different version on their native as it connects to their identity -An example of this would be in the 1960s and 1970s when African Americans changed the narrative of their own story from a victim side to a resilience

The second relationship that shows the connection between narrative and power is the product of morality that comes out of these stories and history. These moral opinions either support the structure of our society or challenge the norms and furthermore, these stories and connections have the power to influence the support for the groups from people outside. -An example of this would be the moral arguments against European colonizers provided by Native Americans in their telling of their history as it connects to their identity

Narrative and Multiplicity[edit]

The relationship between narrative and multiplicity is complex, especially in a country such as ours that is deemed “the melting pot” of the world. Even though the US holds such a diverse society with many separate ethnic groups, the notion that everyone can only identify with one group was very strong up until a few years ago. Even though more people with mixed backgrounds are now claiming different identities, there is still some pressure to choose what identity they belong to more because society tends to frown upon the “over-complexity” of someone who belongs to different groups An example of this would be people with both African American and German American heritage struggling to claim both because society sees them more as one than the other

  • Assumption that boundaries between groups are clear and easily definable
    • Based on the misconception that race is a biological phenomenon
  • African Americans are often seen as monoracial despite having mixed ancestry
  • People who belong to multiple different ethnic groups carry around multiple different narratives as well that all come together in one person
    • However, emphasis on monoracial categories sets up and implies exclusion based on those categories
  • Narratives of multiplicity suggest more multi-layered view of ethnic categories
    • In addition to hegemonic vs. subversive narratives, we can also think of them as segregating or integrating
    • Narratives of multiplicity are subversive and integrating: focus on connecting people rather than separating them based on boundaries
  • Sometimes both the dominant and subordinate groups can insist on commitment to one ethnicity over the other
    • This denies people who can claim both ethnic identities the ability to do so, precluding a more complex view of ethnic identity and demanding simplification


The narrative that surrounds our identities have a major impact on how our ethnicities are seen by our own group and outsiders. These stories compose us and it's also what we leave to our future generations. In a way, it's the end because people form an opinion on the group after listening to our stories but it's also the beginning because the stories we tell give significance to who we are a group before the opinion or judgment is made