This commentary on Marilyn Strathern's article, “Binary License,” discusses certain implications of her assertion that intertribal relationships among urban migrants in Papua New Guinea are not “ethnic.” For if such social encounters do not involve a conventional politics of identity, what then might its politics be? By comparing Strathern's Melanesian case with ethnographic examples in Corsica and Mongolia, a novel relational modality of “intensive ethnicity” may be identified, one that differs qualitatively from the “extensive ethnicity” with which anthropologists have usually been concerned. The two forms of ethnicity are equally relative, in that a given group's self-understanding and self-designation are in both cases the result of its relations with other groups. However, ethnically extensive relations of the standard anthropological variety involve symbolic processes of boundary making and boundary maintenance whereby contrasting cultural traits or contents are arbitrarily assigned to and distributed among preexisting social forms and social scales (whether individuals, communities, or nations). Conversely, the more intensive intertribal engagements described by Strathern and certain other anthropologists are relational all the way down, given that everything about the terms of these relations (including their form, scale, and dimensioning) is defined by the particular quality in question. Thus a contrast may be established between the politics of identity and what might be called non-identity politics. If the former amounts to an ethnic economy in which subjectivities are exchanged in a commodity-like, alienable way, then, in the latter, stereotypical naming and other seeming “ethnic” practices amount to gift-like, non-alienable insertions of selves into others.

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