Modern Asian Studies


Multiple Ethnicities in Malaysia: The Shifting Relevance of Alternative Chinese Categories

Judith Straucha1

a1 Harvard University

Ethnicity takes many forms, meets a variety of needs, and has a wide range of uses. No single case can provide material for an exhaustive analysis of the full complexity of the phenomenon, but all contribute pieces to the mosaic, illuminating that complexity. Analyses have been couched in terms of cultural definitions, of perceptual and cognitive categories, of social distance and solidarity of groups, of boundary definition and maintenance, of conflict and competition, of emergent versus conservative qualities of the phenomenon, and so forth—and all hold some validity, for ethnicity is multi-faceted. As A. L. Epstein points out, to define ethnicity exclusively in terms of only one of these many facets—whether its potential as a focus for political mobilization, its contribution to an individual's psychic comfort as a member of a group, or its cultural or linguistic attributes—‘is to confuse an aspect of the phenomenon with the phenomenon itself’ (1978:96).