Creolization Research Paper

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The concept of creolization, so called by analogy with the creolization of languages, has been used in anthropology to refer to the process of social change that takes place in societies characterized by rapid social flux, and where cultural influences from various origins are integrated into a new system of meaning locally produced. Cultural creolization is found particularly in urban centers in association with sustained cultural contact, more typically produced within the hegemonical conditions of colonization, of World system influences, and of globalization.

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1. The Origin Of The Concept

The concept of ‘creolization’ is borrowed from linguistics, where it refers (a) to a process of transformation of a pidgin language into the main language (and often, into the mother tongue) of a new linguistic community, and (b) to the creation of a creole language out of different languages (at least two) without an intermediate pidgin state. It is this second meaning that has been borrowed by anthropology, but as this process is rather rarer than the preceding one, it would have been more accurate to use the term of pidginization (formation of a pidgin language) to refer to the cultural phenomena that are now described with the concept of creolization (Jourdan 1987, McKellin 1991). A pidgin or a creole develops as a response to communication pressures, in situations of intense cultural contact, and incorporates features from languages available to the pidgin creole makers: the new language is distinct from the languages that have shaped it, yet has retained sufficient features of them, that their origin can sometimes be traced and identified. Theories of pidgin and creole genesis are highly debated in creole studies, yet scholars agree that the characteristics of pidgin and creole languages include the speed with which they form and develop; the sociological conditions that have shaped them, most typically, col-onization; and an almost instantaneous creativity.

2. Creolization And Anthropology

Despite the epistemological difficulties inherent to the borrowing of theories and analytical models across disciplines, the concept of creolization seems to have captured the imagination of some scholars as a way of talking about and analyzing rapid cultural change associated with contact between societies of different ideological and technological orientation. The fact that the label ‘creolization’ was retained, rather than the more technically appropriate ‘pidginization’ is linked to two factors: first, the word ‘creole’ already existed in anthropology to refer to the people and plantation societies of the Caribbeans and the Indian Ocean, typically characterized by a high degree of cultural diversity and intense contact, but nevertheless full-fledged cultural formations, most often sustained by creole languages. Second, for a long time pidginization has been thought of as a process of linguistic impoverishment, whereas creolization was always associated with linguistic enrichment and elaboration. Using the former label could have been seen as a pejorative and inadequate label to describe a process of cultural creativity where ‘loss’ had no place. In this case, the metaphorical power of creolization won over the more technically correct pidginization. The earlier examples of such usage appear in the works of Drummond (1980), and Hannerz (1987). In parallel, French linguists and anthropologists working in West Africa and in the Pacific have introduced the concept of creolite to talk about the creole-like features of the societies where they work (Mannessy 1987), of ‘creoli-city’ to talk about the socioeconomic and ideological conditions fostering the development of creolized societies (Jourdan 1985) and of cultural metissage (Amselle 1990).

In anthropology, creolization has been used in two different ways. First, as a metaphor capturing elusive processes of integration of new cultural forms, a synonym of hybridization associated with globaliza-tion. Second, as an analytical model for the study of social change directly mapped onto the linguistic model of creolization–pidginization described above. In all cases, creolization is used to refer to social change. An example, yet not representative of all types and domains of creolization, would be a Solomon Island business man sending printed invitations to the Catholic wedding of his daughter in the biggest hotel of the city of Honiara, but who would make sure to collect the bridewealth from the family of the groom, and would subsequently redistribute it to his kin.

Used as a metaphor, the meaning of creolization remains very akin to that of hybridization and creates the same type of conceptual ambiguities: is it the process or is it the results of structural modification or reorganization? The image that there is something that gets mixed with something else to produce yet another thing (e.g., the new form of marriage in Honiara), is inherent to the metaphor. As such, it is an interesting shortcut into the description of phenomena not easily definable, but which seem to be clearly associated with the complexification of social relationships. Used only as a metaphor, creolization (and hybridity) fail to explain how what is happening warrants the usage of this new term rather than intersystem (Drummond 1980), syncretism, or metissage, those other concepts central to a study of social change that focuses on the in-between. Creolization, in that sense, is used to refer to a recombination of structures, practices and meanings: a case of ‘new meanings in old shells’ or ‘old meanings in new shells.’ In as much as they focus on the dynamic intermixing and restructuring of meanings, both concepts are similar. Both capture the image of the in-between, of the neither nor, of flux and vanishing boundaries, but focus on the result.

A stronger reading of the concept of creolization, closest to the way the concept is used in linguistics, proposes ways of identifying the cultural logic which provides answers to the following questions: What changes and what does not, and under which conditions? What is the nature and the pace of the change? If culture is practice, how does change affect the practice of identity? If culture is text, is every aspect of culture affected in the same manner and to the same extent? If culture is grammar, are there parameters and constraints for change? What makes the change acceptable? This version of creolization rests on a set of assumptions: (a) that moral–existential aspects of culture can be differentiated from instrumental aspects; (b) that the latter change at a faster pace than the former; (c) that, with regards to the pace of change, they can be compared with the syntax and lexicon of a language respectively. In situations of creolization, local instrumental aspects of culture are often replaced, along with their attending symbols and meanings, with those from another source. The moral–existential aspects of culture are now sustained by new symbols, and may be given slightly different meanings, but will still be perceived as essential to the group’s definition of identity. The bridewealth payment mentioned above is essential to the father’s standing in one of his networks (here his lineage) and justifies his traveling back to the home village to collect it. All participants in the transaction agree that the meaning of such bridewealth is now very different from what it used to be, and that the amount is inflated. Yet bridewealth has to be paid, even against the wishes of the parish priest, because this form of exchange is essential to the integration of lineages, and therefore to the father’s identity as a member of the group. As with any form of social process, creolization rests on people’s agency and ability to engage the world, and is associated with a reconfiguration of self and of the practice of identity. Undoubtedly, there is a distinct advantage in identifying the processes that lead to a redefinition of people’s practice of identity, even if, initially, this identification may start with an analysis of the features and elements that are being transferred across cultures, with or without attendant localization.

3. Essentialism

Contra critics have argued that creolization theory is essentialist because it presupposes the existence of pristine cultures that will subsequently join, mix, overlap, and be reshaped; proponents of creolization reject this notion, and point to culture as a locus of permanent change, made even more spectacular at particular times in the history of societies. They also point to the shortcomings of a conception of culture as a bounded pristine entity.

If creolization were an essentialist theory, the concept of cultural loss would be integral to its definition. Yet, it is not, for the simple reason that talking about loss in connection with social change implies a move away from the ideal, but unreal, pristine state of tradition. Loss belongs to a theoretical framework in which cultures are seen as essential wholes, neatly bounded self-reproducing structures, impervious to the passage of time and deriving legitimacy from a primal pristine state. Cultures are not less authentic because they are creolizing. The new cultural practices, and the new cultural forms, that have emerged out of the creolization process are not any more authentic or spurious than the ones they are derived from, or more spurious or authentic than societies that have changed in other ways. They simply exist. What is revealed by the creolization concept is the endless negotiation of meaning that takes place when groups and individuals engage in social relations within societies. The pace and scope of these cultural negotiations are more important in situations of rapid social change. The strength of creolization theory is that it points to (or foregrounds) elements that are not easily captured by other models: heterogeneity rather than homogeneity, process rather than stasis, frag-mentation rather than integration, multiple rather than singular identities, and above all at the domain of culture as contested ground rather than public space.

4. The World System And Globalization

Typically, but not exclusively (see Hannerz 1996) the creolization concept has been applied to the analysis of social change in the so called Third and Fourth World societies, in colonial and postcolonial situations. Colonial, postcolonial and hegemonical con-tact relations are particular in the type and speed of the sociocultural change they provoke and are best suited to be studied with the paradigm of creolization that holds the speed of change as a defining element. Critics have argued that the quasi-exclusive application of creolization theory to these societies disempowers them and reinforces the fait accompli of colonization by strengthening stereotypes. The argument is usually framed in relation to the World System theory and to the concepts of core and periphery. There may be a reason for this affinity: the very sociocultural formations and ideologies that have fostered the development of creole languages have reappeared under a new guise, that of the World System, economic and cultural, which creates even more pressures for change in these societies than anywhere else at the same moment. These types of contact-induced ideological and experiential pressures resemble the superstrate and substrate influences at work in the formation of creole languages in that they juxtapose and confront practices and meanings that are produced by different social systems and ideologies. This raises the question of the relationship of creolization to globalization. Creolization shares with globalization an increase in available modes of social organization and cultural representation (Pieterse 1995), both offer more options. Both are associated with more culture and not less, even if, on the surface, things look different. But with globalization residing in a movement of ideas, as much as in people’s engagement with new sets of ideologies and practices, one could identity, as Hannerz does in Stockholm (1996), creolizing formations in nontypical creolization sites.

5. Urbanization

It is in cities that creolization is the most obvious, if only because of the rate and scope of change. As cultural market places, cities are the loci of very fast socio-cultural mutations that lead some observers to talk of deculturation, and not only of adaptation to an urban way of life. Creolization is neither. When full-fledged towns and cities develop over mere 40 years, as is the case in many parts of the Third World, in places where there is no local tradition of urbanization, for instance, it requires on the part of urbanites a reassessment of the parameters of their identity (as with the father’s behavior at the time of his daughter’s wedding) and subsequent engagement in new types of social relations of the type and scale that is not found in other forms of sociocultural change. What is typical of cities is the ebullition of cultural creativity. Only a close study of the superstrate and substrate influences could reveal why, despite the onslaught of a generic cultural and economic World System (the superstrate) onto local traditions (the substrate), the cultural formations of urban Nigeria (Hannerz 1987) Solomon Islands (Jourdan 1985), and Guyana (Drummond 1980) are similar in very many ways, and yet very different from one another. This begs the question of the specificity of creolized societies: are they any different from other types of societies, given the fact that all societies are changing, and that many contemporary non-Third World societies have, at some point in their history, lived in situations of colonization, invasion or hegemony? May be they are, if only because of the speed and the depth of change that characterize them, and give the impression of a permanent flux. The lifespan of creolization is also a subject of debate: is creolization a transitional period in the life of societies, at particular moments of their history, or is it a permanent state of affairs? One has to ask whether anthropology will be better served by using creolization as a universal synonym for fast cultural change associated with globalization, or whether the concept is not more useful when applied to some social contexts of change and not to others.


  1. Amselle J L 1990 Anthropologie de l’identite en Afrique et ailleurs. Payot, Paris
  2. Drummond L 1980 The cultural continuum: a theory of intersystems. Man 15: 352–74
  3. Hannerz U 1987 The world in creolization. Africa 57: 546–59
  4. Hannerz U 1996 Transnational Connections. Routledge, London
  5. Jourdan C 1985 Sapos iumi mitim iumi: creolization and urbanization in the Solomon Islands. Ph.D. thesis. The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT
  6. Jourdan C 1987 Des plantations a la ville. Journal de la Societe des Oceanistes 85: 243–53
  7. Mannessy G 1987 Creolisation et creolite. Etudes Creoles 10: 25–38
  8. McKellin W 1991 Hegemony and the language of change: the pidginization of land tenure among the Managalase of Papua New Guinea. Ethnology 30: 313–24
  9. Pieterse J N 1995 Globalization as hybridization. In: Feather-stone M, Lash S, Robertson R (eds.) Global Modernities. Sage, London, pp. 45–68
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