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Symbolic Ethnicity and the Dilemmas of Difference: Talking Indianness with New Zealand-Born Gujaratis

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posted on 2021-11-03, 09:14 authored by Gilbertson, Amanda

Marcus Banks (1996: 8) argues that the life of ethnicity has been lived out through the writings of academics rather than in the lives of the people they have studied and, indeed, local discourses of ethnicity are remarkably understudied. This thesis takes a step towards addressing the lack of attention given to local discourses of ethnicity by exploring the ways in which sixteen New Zealand-born Gujaratis talked about their Indianness in interviews conducted specifically for this project. Herbert Gans’ (1979) notion of symbolic ethnicity is initially employed as a framework for understanding participants’ narratives. Although this analysis gives an indication of the salience of ethnicity in the lives of my participants, it fails to account for the complex dilemmas of difference they expressed – the definition of ‘Indian culture’ in terms of difference from other ‘cultures’ and the suggestion that they were different from other New Zealanders by virtue of their Indianness. These issues are explained through an exploration of the assumptions about the cultural and the person that were inherent in notions expressed by participants of living in ‘two worlds’ and having to find a balance between them. This analysis suggests that participants constructed both ‘culture’ and ‘the individual’ as highly individuated categories. It is argued that these conceptualizations of ‘culture’ and ‘the individual’ can be usefully understood in terms of reflexive, or liquid, modernity and reflexive individualism. Under the conditions of late modernity, reflexive – that is, selfdirected and self-oriented – thought and activity become idealised and individuals are ideologically cast as the producers of their own biographies. My participants’ discussions of their Indianness can, therefore, be understood to represent a kind of ‘self-reflexive ethnicity’ that is centred on the person rather than on social networks or cultural practices. This mode of ethnicity does not necessarily require the decline of such networks and practices; they are simply reconfigured in terms of personal choice.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Social and Cultural Studies


Urry, James; Bönisch-Brednich, Brigitte