Strategies of making and unmaking ethnic boundaries: Evidence on the Laz of Turkey

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Serdar A.

ETHNICITIES, vol.19, pp.335-369, 2019 (SSCI) identifier identifier

  • Publication Type: Article / Article
  • Volume: 19
  • Publication Date: 2019
  • Doi Number: 10.1177/1468796817739933
  • Journal Name: ETHNICITIES
  • Journal Indexes: Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI), Scopus
  • Page Numbers: pp.335-369
  • Istanbul Technical University Affiliated: Yes


The main aim of this article is to explore different strategies of boundary making and unmaking by a minority ethnic group. I apply the theories of "boundary work" and constructivist understanding of ethnicity and nationhood to the case of the Laz, one of the autochthons of the Eastern Black Sea region of Turkey. I analyze two main strategies-boundary crossing and contraction-in the context of three sets of encounters and interactions, with Turks/Turkishness, people of Black Sea-Karadenizli-and Kurds/Kurdishness. First, I argue that assimilating into the official Turkish identity is one of the strategies adopted by the ethnic Laz. The Laz are incorporated into Turkishness both by their search for economic mobility, status, and by assimilationist policies of the state especially aimed at the spread of Turkish. To become a full-fledged true member of the nation and access to potential benefits, Turkishness through language shift has been realized that allowed boundary crossing of the Laz. Second, I state that despite the efforts of the top-down assimilationist policies, noncontentious ethnic identities can be reproduced by means of symbolic boundaries. The Laz contextually activate symbolic boundaries in informal settings by contracting from other people of Black Sea-Karadenizli-or ethnic Turkishness. The ethnic language is substituted by nonthreatening ethnic performances and rhetoric, less marked and more subjective traits of self-asserted differences. Such symbolic boundaries correspond to unofficial forms of hierarchies and competition over local belongings. Third, the analysis of the Laz-Kurd relationship unveils that ethnic boundaries can be redefined according to changing conditions. The impact of the Kurds on the Laz identity, either by means of personal acquaintances or the relationship between the state and the Kurdish national movement, is imperative. It triggers contradictions in the Laz identity by revealing new potential redefinitions and recasting of boundaries.