Simon Schlegel

Ethnicity and its Translations—The History of an Ambiguous Concept in a Contested Land

The meanings and implications of ethnicity have changed substantially over time and space. This study aims to find a suitable set of translations for “ethnicity” at different periods during the past two centuries in a peripheral and multi-ethnic Ukrainian region; southern Bessarabia. To do so, the emic/etic distinction, long useful to social anthropologists, is applied to the study of history. This region has been chosen for its history as a contested territory that in the past two centuries has changed hands many times; it has been ruled by the Russian Empire, Romania, the Soviet Union, and most recently Ukraine. Each of these states used ethnicity as it served them best. How this history of changing functions has changed the meaning of ethnicity was analyzed by combining archival sources with biographical interviews and ethnographic fieldwork. The study shows that ethnicity became an exclusive and clearly bounded category only in periods when the currently ruling state experienced some sort of legitimacy crisis. At such times, each state invested substantial resources to reach locals and convince them of a specific concept of ethnicity. It is important to notice that it was not the alternating states that changed the meaning of ethnicity. Rather, it was the developmental phase the state was going through. With more pervasive bureaucracies, states needed to fine-tune their administrative categories, among them ethnicity. When state elites came under pressure, they began to suspect ethnic minorities and therefore tried to count and control them more closely. The changeful history of a term’s implications resulted in an array of popular narratives about what ethnicity is and how it acts out. Collecting and analyzing such narratives helped to approach translations of the changing meanings of ethnicity during the past 200 years of Bessarabian history.

Simon Schlegel is a PhD candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany since 2011. His dissertation project deals with the history of ethnic boundaries in southern Bessarabia. After an initial phase of advanced courses and language training he took up fieldwork in Izmail, Ukraine, between late summer 2012 and December 2013. Simon Schlegel was born and grew up in Switzerland. His first stay in Russia was an exchange semester in Tver during middle school in 2000. In 2004 he began to study at the University of Zurich with a major in Social Anthropology and minors in Russian Linguistics and Sociology. His MA thesis about the perception of Ukrainian language policy was based on a 6-months fieldwork stay in Odessa. After his MA in 2010, he did several internships with development cooperation organizations in Switzerland, Germany, and Kyrgyzstan.


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