Primordialism or perennialism is the argument which contends that nations are ancient, natural phenomena.
Primordialism can be traced philosophically to the ideas of German Romanticism, particularly in the works of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Johann Gottfried Herder. For Herder, the nation was synonymous with language group. In Herder's thinking, language was synonymous with thought, and as each language was learnt in community, then each community must think differently. This also suggests that the community would hold a fixed nature over time.
Primordialism encountered enormous criticism after the Second World War, with many scholars of nationalism coming to treat the nation as a community constructed by the technologies and politics of modernity. (Modernism)
Primordialism, in relation to ethnicity, argues that “ethnic groups and nationalities exist because there are traditions of belief and action towards primordial objects such as biological factors and especially territorial location”.
This argument relies on a concept of kinship, where members of an ethnic group feel they share characteristics, origins or sometimes even a blood relationship. Seen through the Igbos of Nigeria, following what they felt was their origin as descendants of the Jews. “Primordialism assumes ethnic identity as fixed, once it is constructed”.
The Rwandan Genocide in 1994 witnessed the murder of approximately 800,000 Rwandans in the span of three months. This violence, as also experienced in the Nigerian Civil War in 1967, was arguably due to ethnicity and the rivalries between ethnic groups. The dominant Hutu ethnic group in Rwanda felt they must kill their ethnic neighbours the Tutsi, due to established differences in ethnic identities which set them apart. As historian Sandra Joireman argues, ‘this type of explanation of the Rwanda genocide and its horrific violence, with its emphasis on the causes being due to the difference in Kinship and beliefs of the two ethnic groups, is a primordialist view.
To a large extent it was the belief in the primordialist argument of kinship, historical traditions and homeland, of these ethnic groups, that encouraged the Hutu to feel their actions were justified. Despite much academic criticism of Primordialism, and the development of other ethnic theories such as constructivism and instrumentalism, Primordialism is “influential in identifying the enduring strength of ethnic ties and its member’s commitment to it”. For example, some scholars have argued that the Cold war influenced and instigate this belief in ethnicity and ethnic conflict. However, Primordialism disagrees and argues that ethnicity existed historically, long before the Cold War, which merely gave way to ideological issues.
Furthermore, the primordialist argument ‘suggests that irreconcilable differences due to cultural gaps cause fear and conflict that beget violence’. Although more recent historical studies have purported that the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was a result of disparities in power and wealth between the Tutsi and the Hutu, primordialists assert that the Hutu and Tutsi developed entirely separate cultures and will thereby inevitably come into conflict with one another. As primordial ethnicity is archaic, ‘fixed and unchanging’, the possibility for cultural assimilation within Rwanda was presented as impossible.
It has been argued that an appeal to ethnic homelands was present in the genocide, ‘based on the notion that Rwanda belonged to the Hutu, its true inhabitants’ and that the Tutsi had encroached on this ancient, ethnic territory (cf. Hamitic Theory). The scholar Jefremovas offers a criticism of a primordial view of ethnicity within Rwanda, stating that despite the strong focus on ethnic differences, ‘Tutsi and Hutu live in the same places, speak the same language, practice the same religions’ and an ‘enormous overlap in physical characteristics between the groups’ is evident. Thus, as there are considerable cultural and physical similarities between the two ‘ethnicities’ a primordial view of the genocide seems unfeasible. However, Jefremovas does add that despite ethnicity being ‘hard to define in Rwanda, these labels are recognised by people and have power’.
The primordialist view suggests that the irreconcilable cultural differences between the Hutu and the Tutsi was the major cause of the Rwandan genocide as it included notions about the right to the homeland and led the Hutu to regard the Tutsi as intruders. Furthermore, due to the strong different cultural identities led to hardened beliefs of ‘us’ and ‘them’ making it easier to dehumanise the Tutsis making mass murder plausible.