On the Dark Side of Culture


Many ethnologists today use the historical perspective merely as a backdrop against which they stage their cultural compositions. An exaggerated obsession with actors and subjects has led to the neglect of both the rich social context and the significance of a deep historical perspective. The experiences of groups like the Swedish tinkers (tattare) in their encounter with the exercise of power in different periods has given them a cultural identity with a surprising consistency through time. This identity has not only been created by society's segregation but has also been built up by people who refused to subordinate themselves to the prevailing norms. In my study of the situation of the tinkers, I start from a conflict perspective and question the harmonious descriptions which assume that the exercise of power was successful. Conflicts based on crimes against prevailing morals have left numerous traces in the archives. By looking at the individual tinker's everyday attempts to stretch the limits of society's norm system and comparing this with various levels in the exercise of power, I exemplify how the interplay between actor and structure, between separating and generalizing forces, affects both the disciplinary system and the individual tinker. My analytical strategy is to apply a long time-depth, so that we can see more distinctly not only what remains consistently the same but also what is transient and different.

How to Cite

Svensson, B., (1992) “On the Dark Side of Culture”, Ethnologia Europaea 22(1), 5-16. doi: https://doi.org/10.16995/ee.1192

Publisher Notes

  • This article was previously published by Museum Tusculanum Press.


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Birgitta Svensson (Stockholm University)



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