- The Centrality of Periphery
In 2012 Ab Imperio focused on the annual theme "Structures and Cultures of Imperial and Post-Imperial Diversity." This focus is, essentially, on a key problem for our journal, whose concern is not with the holistic entities of social groups or chronological periods (nation, territory, confession, gender, Middle Ages, etc.) but with the situation of unstable balance in a composite society, and asynchronous historical development. What appears as a particular case or a marginal condition from the point of view of traditional historical approaches is for Ab Imperio the main mode of society's existence both in the past and present. Social boundaries are conditional, fluid, and situational; the pace of time differs in various contexts, and different "historical eras" can exist simultaneously. Even early Soviet Marxists acknowledged the parallel coexistence of different historical "formations" in one society, while the limits of solidarity within a social group is evident for both scholars of contemporary societies and historians. And yet, today's humanities and social sciences believe in the "realism of the group" and periodization. Marginal (if not completely imaginary) phenomena that cannot be observed anywhere except the bureaucratic questionnaires and statistical groupings are viewed as a normal and normative state of society.
Two polar views of "social norm" imply different understandings of the organization of diversity in society. Traditional social sciences are structured by a vision that Ernest Gellner called "Modigliani's map:" multicolored [End Page 19] blocks of different sizes and shapes (but with clear boundaries and internally homogeneous) form a giant mosaic of social diversity. These blocks are located on the same plane and are grouped according to clear departments. In the department of "peoples," this diversity is represented by "Jews," "Ukrainians," "Tatars," and "Russians;" in the department of "social structure," it features "nobles," "peasants," "town dwellers," and so on. This map of the world was the foundation for the European multiculturalism of the 1970s and 1980s, which was exploded by rebellions in Parisian banlieues and anti-Islamic panic. As it turned out, "poverty," "Africanness," "Islam," and "youth" do not belong to four different and separate "planes of diversity" (thus forming isolated spaces of social differentiation and multiculturalism – e.g., "Africans-Asians−Europeans" or "unemployed-workers-middle class−wealthy"), but form universal hybrid social identities.
These hybrid identities formed in different times from different components with different characteristics are the main protagonists of new imperial history developed by Ab Imperio. Obviously, this research agenda makes scholars particularly sensitive to their terminology. The problem of the relationship between languages of self-description of past societies and the analytical languages of today's scholars is one of the central foci for Ab Imperio, extensively discussed both in the journal's pages as well as within research projects. 1 Now it seems important to emphasize that two different approaches to the use of analytical languages and hence two modes of describing social reality (through static "status" or dynamic "situation") produce two different "scans" of composite societies. In one case, the society consists of a priori assigned blocks (class/confession/ gender/nationality, etc.). In the second case, society is differentiated into groups that are distinguished only when (or every time) certain criteria of otherness become relevant in the context of a specific situation, when these criteria are actually used for marking groupness. For instance, "nationality" is not a meaningful criterion in a monoethnic village but can become a key factor in a large city. As we can see, in the first case, the matrix of differences is imposed by the researcher, more or less sensitive to the nuances of the past, from the outside. In the second case, differences are recognized as such and registered only if they are actually manifested in practice, in a specific situation. Ideally, these differences should be described in the [End Page 20] analytical language of contemporary social sciences and interpreted within the framework of a contemporary theoretical model, but it is equally important to avoid anachronistic ascriptions of today's criteria of groupness to motivations of the actions of people in the past. (For instance...