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This research paper examines the anthropological interest in globalization from two perspectives. First, in conversation with other social sciences and second, to reexamine classical questions of diffusion, identification, comparison from within the discipline itself. Central to this analysis is the idea of ‘flow’ that places objects, ideologies, technologies, and images within the dynamic sphere of exchange and circulation. This research paper also engages with contemporary concerns regarding forceful human dislocation and ensuing violence that are integral to the emerging structures of sovereignty.
- The Disciplinary Context
- Global Cultural Flows
- Heterogeneity or Homogeneity?
- Sovereignty, Citizenship, and Violence
- Looking Ahead
The Disciplinary Context
Anthropological interest in globalization is difficult to trace precisely but can be recognized as early as Appadurai’s work on the global cultural economy (1990, 1996), Hannerz’s analysis of cultural complexity and creolization (1987, 1992), and Friedman’s work linking global capitalism and cultural processes (1988, 1994), all of which built on earlier anthropological interest in cultural exchange and world systems. From the start, such work has been part of two sets of scholarly exchanges and debates. The first links anthropology with a wider debate about globalization in other social science fields, notably geography, political science, and sociology. The other is internal to anthropology and links it to longstanding concerns with diffusion, comparison, ethnography, and the study of large-scale historical change. A brief look at each of these contexts might help to frame the anthropological perspective on globalization.
As regards the social sciences in general, anthropologists in the late 1980s found themselves, like many other scholars, trying to understand the processes that led to the breakdown of the Soviet World and to guess at the shape of things to come. They soon found themselves having to engage powerful perspectives on the emergent world order, which came out of the Marxist tradition in geography (exemplified by Harvey, 1989), by a renewed interest in global political culture, exemplified by the polemical and much discussed work of Samuel Huntington (1996), and some prescient studies of the new forms being taken by global capitalism in the last decades of the twentieth century (Lash and Urry, 1987). In addition, anthropologists found themselves in a rich, sometimes competitive dialogue with scholars in literary and cultural studies, notably those influenced by British cultural Marxism, and most powerfully represented by Stuart Hall (1986). In addition, the publication of Benedict Anderson’s landmark study of nationalism (1983) provoked a strikingly wide debate about the links between politics, the imagination, and national identification. These stimuli helped to shape anthropological research on globalization, which in many ways is marked by the ongoing effort to link broad structures and processes in the world economy to the subtleties of communication, interpretation, and translation that govern everyday life in all societies.
Within anthropology, the study of globalization is built on several well-established currents of interest. In the United States, the study of globalization fits well with Boasian traditions in the study of diffusion, cultural change, and culture contact and with a longstanding interest in urban settings and complex societies. In Europe, anthropologists were slower to take an interest in globalization; hence, too long-standing interests in problems of scale, social cohesion, and structural change made globalization a subject of growing interest after 1990. In other parts of the world, such as Latin America, Africa, and India, the anthropological interest in globalization was more closely linked to problems of ethics, development, and inequality.
In spite of these various currents of research and theorization within which the anthropological interest in globalization has developed, from the beginning there were serious doubts about whether globalization by its nature was a topic suitable to the special strengths of anthropology in the study of intimate social relations and of societies governed by nonmarket social principles. Many of these anxieties have been translated into methodological concerns, reflected in a significant body of methodological work about how anthropology ought to address the emergent world of globalization (e.g., Fox, 1991). There is still a considerable body of opinion among professional anthropologists that globalization may well be a mere trend, an artifact of academic fashion, and that, in any case, it is not an ideal subject for anthropological research because of its conceptual and social scale. This rearguard anxiety, which is sometimes not easy to distinguish from fear of disciplinary failure, has not prevented a rich set of theoretical debates and empirical studies from emerging out of various anthropological traditions, both in the Atlantic world and beyond. These studies, largely a product of anthropological work since the 1990s, are discussed in the following sections.
Global Cultural Flows
The image of ‘flow’ has been a central trope of anthropological work on globalization. In the work of Appadurai (1990, 1996), the idea of ‘flow’ was used to capture a complex dynamic in which objects, ideas, ideologies, technologies, and images were placed in a single economy of circulation, with an eye to distinguish different emergent mosaics of cultural form and social design. In Hannerz’s use of this concept (1992, 1996), it was fruitfully linked to Kroeber’s idea about large-scale civilizational and interactional spheres – ecumenes – as well as to ideas about creolization, cosmopolitanization, and the professional networks associated with rapid flows of cultural commodities.
In these early usages of the idea of flow, and in subsequent elaborations of them by others, the idea of flow was sharpened to redress the assumption that cultural flows in the era of globalization were unrestricted in scope and range. A salutary emphasis on boundaries, limitations, selectivities, and exclusions reappeared, thus placing the classic debate between Marxist and cultural approaches once again at the center of attention. This broad interpretive struggle continues (Rockefeller, 2011), and the choices it poses are reflected in many studies associated with the anthropology of globalization, on such subjects as migration (Lomnitz, 2001; Eriksen, 2010; Gingrich and Banks, 2006), colonialism and postcolonialism (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2000a; Mbembe, 2001), media (Feld, 1999; Ginsburg et al., 2002), diaspora (van der Veer, 1995), markets (Hart, 1999; Bestor, 2004), and religion (Csordas, 2009; Rudnyckyj, 2010; van der Veer, 2013).
The positive contribution of the idea of flow was to open up new questions about the relation between legal and illicit flows of commodities and persons, the changing nature of borders and boundaries, the implications of new regimes of financial circulation and cybercommerce, and the evolution of new forms of diasporic identification and mobile tradition building (Nordstrom, 2007; Nordstrom and Carlson, 2014). The image of flows also opens a potential conversation, yet to be fully exploited, between economists and anthropologists on the question of the changes in the world economy suggested by the idea of globalization, and of the best ways of measuring their scale and significance. In a general way, the engagement with cultural flows, their associated economies and interpretations, has marked a decisive shift, in which anthropologists are no longer confined to the study of simple market societies but are addressing such complex phenomena as cybercommerce, intellectual property (Strathern, 2006), and new forms of genetic engineering (Lock and Nguyen, 2010) and marketing. Likewise, the anthropological focus on cross-border flows, as we will see shortly, has opened up a useful conversation between anthropologists, political theorists, and sociologists on new forms of citizenship and sovereignty (Geschiere, 2009; Held and Moore, 2008).
Above all, the focus on flows, regardless of context, commodity, or sphere, has brought anthropology back to one of its earlier insights, namely that most human societies have always been in interactive relations with others, forming spheres of exchange and circulation. Thus, the images of social stability, impermeable boundaries, and natural divisions between ethnic groups, polities, and communities, sometimes implicit in anthropological practice, have been put under sharp scrutiny. In turn, the widespread recognition that societies in the era of globalization are inevitably parts of wider circulatory systems and networks, has posed new challenges for how anthropologists will need to theorize classical models of cohesion, consensus, and order (Appadurai, 2013). At the end of the twentieth century, there was some uncertainty about how to reconcile the undoubted significance of large-scale cultural differences with the reality of the velocity of cross-border flows and the uneven thickness of the membranes between societies, whether organized as nation-states or not. It seems probable that the question of how social order and cultural coherence in lived communities are maintained in the face of complex and uneven cross-border flows will be a major theoretical challenge for the twenty-first century anthropology.
Many of these concerns have produced a special interest in the anthropology of nationalism and a series of contested views about the salience, form, and future of the nation-state as a form of global political organization. The pendulum appears to swing between those (both inside and outside anthropology) who predict the early demise of the nation-state and those who see it as growing stronger than ever. Sometimes, these debates are reflections of actual differences between existing states and sometimes, they are the result of blurring the lines between nations and nationalism on the one hand and states and their powers on the other. The emerging consensus seems to be that while nation-states are unlikely to disappear in the near future, they are evolving their own powers in a transformed ecology of sovereignty. This ecology is affected by changes in the velocity of global capital flows, scale and speed of cross-border shadow economies, and geography of dual, mobile, and diasporic political identifications among citizens. These processes are discussed further below (see Section Sovereignty, Citizenship, and Violence).
The interest in various forms of global cultural flow, and in the nonisomorphic relationship between them, has provoked a strong debate about whether, and the extent to which, globalization is a new social regime. Many voices within anthropology argue vigorously that globalization is no more than a semiotic conspiracy of the media and of global capital and its allies in the world of development. In this view, globalization is only a clever way to repackage colonialism, imperialism, modernization, or various combinations of these ideologies. It is old wine in new bottles. This view runs into the difficulty of having to accommodate too many new animals into an existing theoretical Ark and suffers from the further disability that it does not provide any criteria for recognizing genuine systemic change. It ends history in the name of theory. The more widespread band of opinion among anthropologists is that something surely has changed. The challenge is, as always, to establish what has changed and how it affects the things that have not changed. Thus, there is a renewed interest in how identities are negotiated across multiple locations, how existing structures like witchcraft (Geschiere, 1997) become vehicles and sites for new anxieties and energies, and of how new legal and economic arrangements (those sometimes lumped together under the rubric of neoliberalism) call forth new perceptions of danger, wealth, and risk (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2000b).
Finally, ideas and debates surrounding the idea of global cultural flows have cast fresh light on a classic concern of anthropology, namely the process of identification and the production of identities. These processes have to be reexamined in a world characterized by massive information flow, heightened media images of life possibilities for ordinary people, and new fantasies of wealth and mobility. The rapid growth in mass-market media penetration across national boundaries, the associated growth in the battle between global and national media barons, the projected increase in various kinds of bandwidth, and the emergent possibility of new, hybrid instruments for cheap, high-speed communication, all combine to change the grounds on which stable cultural identities are produced and secured. Likewise, these factors make it impossible to presume the image of the local as an unchanging ground against which the tableau of global change plays out. Indeed, many anthropologists now have come to take as great an interest in ‘the production of locality’ (Appadurai, 1996) as in the dynamics of globalization.
With its special interest in language, everyday life, and small-scale social interaction, anthropology is evolving a special purchase on the vast terrain represented by globalization, by paying particular attention to the vagaries of translation and localization and to the special role of language and semiotic mediation in producing new forms of lived experience. This has resulted in a sustained effort to examine the cultural dimension of objects and technologies that have their primary home in the spheres of law, science, and the market. Therefore, anthropologists at the beginning of the twenty-first century studied the organ trade, refugee incarceration, NGOs, musical copyright law, and derivatives, to name just a few examples of social and technical forms whose cultural design is sometimes overlooked. In this proliferation of topics (some of them addressed by other authors in the Encyclopedia), there are some major crosscutting themes, two of which are briefly discussed below.
Heterogeneity or Homogeneity?
Most anthropologists share the widespread presumption that globalization is a new phase in the integration of the world economy, principally powered by new scales and speeds in the circulation of financial capital and the associated explosion in electronic communication technologies. When we recall that the major models of global economic processes have come out of the Marxist tradition, it helps to explain why there is a tendency among some anthropologists to argue that globalization is no more than a new phase in the history of capitalist commodification. From this, follows the possibility that, from a cultural point of view, the forces of commodification will produce increasing levels of cultural homogenization and social standardization, particularly in the realm of media icons, social styles, and consumption values. The further extrapolation, rarely stated explicitly, is that these processes will in turn erase cultural differences both within and across societies. This is the nightmare of globalization as coca-colonization (Hollywood, McDonald’s, and Disney are the favored icons of this line of speculation). Yet the evidence is mounting that societies appropriate various forms of commodification in their own terms, media messages are downloaded idiosyncratically, weapons of standardization are frequently subverted to produce further brand differentiation, and the best-laid plans of the standardizers are frequently thwarted by local entrepreneurs and customers.
A splendid example of this process of differentiation is provided in a collection of anthropological essays on the role and style of McDonald’s, as it functions in six distinct East Asian settings (Watson, 1997). The ethnographic essays in this collection illustrate that, as a global profit-making organization, McDonald’s is certainly eager to create uniformity in its products and in its outlets wherever possible. But the essays also show that in each of these settings, McDonald’s encounters a quite different set of needs, anxieties, and possibilities and is drawn into a specific local mosaic of social patterns and cultural orientations, involving age, leisure, work, and freedom. Though McDonald’s is a heavily capitalized multinational corporation, with an unerring eye for its local and global profits, its sensitivity to local markets inevitably contributes to the emergence of different desires and practices in its outlets. This does not make it any less a global corporation, but its strategies are regularly bent to fit local wishes and projects. However, these essays also show that this is not a simple matter of Goliath being repackaged to suit David, culturally speaking. In fact, what McDonald’s produces in these settings are new and unintended styles and contexts for consumption, sociality, and public interaction, each culturally distinct but not in any obvious or predictable way. Many other studies, especially in the sphere of consumption (involving clothing, music, food, leisure, and housing), also confirm this process.
Heterogenization is not a mechanical product of the sphere of consumption. It is itself produced by local makers of ideas, images, and commodities who give to the culture industries of different societies and nations their own distinctive stamp. Thus, anthropologists have been able to show that the simple distinction that places global producers and uniformity on the one side and local consumers and difference on the other is overdrawn. We have a growing series of studies of cultural production worldwide, especially in the areas of music, film, and advertising, which let us look into the sites and institutions through which global commodities are locally interpreted by producers as well as consumers. The study of ‘world music’ by ethnomusicologists is perhaps the best developed of these subfields. In general, these studies have produced a broad consensus that cultural differentiation tends to outpace homogenization, even in this most interactive of economic epochs. Naturally, this conclusion fits with the methodological and ethical proclivities of anthropology, with its professional investment in cultural difference and its ethical commitment to cultural diversity. Nevertheless, there appears to be a substantial empirical basis for this consensus. But anthropological interest has by no means focused solely on the good news of cultural differentiation and has not been uncritically celebratory in its treatment of globalization, as the following section will show.
Sovereignty, Citizenship, and Violence
Anthropologists have not failed to notice that the world of global cultural flows is hardly free of suffering, injustice, and dislocation. They have certainly been aware that the incidence and brutality of forced population movements have, in some respects, increased, producing many pockets of human dislocation and frequency of ethnic violence. They have paid attention to the dilemmas of proletarian labor migrants, who struggle with their own translocal loyalties – frequently to religious formations which are themselves increasingly transnational in scope – against the pressures of the varied ideologies of cultural and legal inclusion that characterize their new homes.
Considered transnationally, poorer migrants face bewildering new combinations of democratic ideology and racist reality. In some cases, such as the oil kingdoms of the Middle East, nonimmigrants monopolize most of the benefits of citizenship. In others, the benefits of citizenship are more widely shared, but everyday racism is a constant threat. In some cases, refugees are drawn into multinational ethnic wars (as in Central Africa in recent years), while in other cases, the revitalization of longstanding ethnonational boundaries flies in the face of intermarriage and ethnic mixing as social realities. In Central Europe, after the death of Tito, the new national constitutions frequently encouraged political campaigns that exacerbated genocidal identities parading as ‘primordial.’ Many nation-states now practice various forms of cultural fundamentalism and majoritarianism, as they struggle for new forms of legitimation in a global economy. In the process, they increasingly both produce and demonize ‘minorities’ (Appadurai, 2006). In many of these cases, language, blood, and race are overdetermined icons of peoplehood that force anthropologists to reconcile their own knowledge of the fragility and historicity of these constructions against the popular, lived sense that these realities are timeless, natural, and nonnegotiable.
As anthropologists examine these bloody sites of ethnic violence and violent social purification (Appadurai, 2006; Das, 2006; Feldman, 1991; Malkki, 1995), they find themselves having to study a variety of antecedent and emergent social realities. These include new forms of ‘flexible’ citizenship (Ong, 1999), new ideologies of citizenship and law (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2000b; Sassen, 1996), new battles over indigenes and outsiders (Meyer and Geschiere, 1999), and new patterns of state-sponsored violence and legality. In engaging with these topics, anthropologists discover that they need to link longstanding professional interests in conflict, bodily ritual, mythologies of origin, and ethnocultural ideology, with new regimes of law, incarceration, borders, and migration.
In particular, anthropologists are now tackling the ways in which the forms of violence and dislocation produced by globalization may be related to new structures of sovereignty, new forms of nationally sponsored globalization, and new niches for the location of the global economy. They thus find themselves in a productive dialogue with scholars in adjacent fields who are making important contributions to these subjects (Castells, 1997; Held and McGrew, 2000; Sassen, 1998). This engagement promises a more sophisticated answer to the question of how new forms of global linkage are also producing new forms of cultural fundamentalism, a question to which somewhat Manichaean answers have been provided in the popular media and its favored public intellectuals in many national contexts. In the United States, and to some extent in Europe, there have been strong alarms raised by economists and development specialists to the effect that globalization is producing both greater wealth and greater inequality. Yet, in popular opinion, especially among the wealthier countries and classes, there seems to be an emergent sense that globalization is a world of the victors in the Cold War and their global allies who have cracked the codes of the global market, the information economy, and the new international order. The losers, in this view, are cultural holdouts at best, cultural terrorists at worst, people who have not understood the new alphabet of the globalized world.
Anthropological work on globalization, in this context, has a challenge and an obligation. The challenge is to take its classical strengths in the study of intimate relations, everyday life, and cultural difference and use them to cast light on circulatory processes that yield local and global results simultaneously. The obligation is to provide a way of thinking about why this era of global integration is yielding at least as much genocidal violence as its democratic voice. That may not seem like a particularly anthropological obligation, but given that anthropology has long tried to create new ways of showing how broad human processes are found in translation, globalization may need anthropology at least as much as vice versa.
It is not easy to predict what topics will find special favor among anthropologists interested in globalization in the coming decades. It is likely that some of the broad themes discussed in this research paper will continue to elicit empirical research and theoretical debate, but it also seems likely that the institutional and geographical range of the anthropological debate will widen. Research institutes, conferences, workshops, publications, and translations concerned with anthropological contributions to the study of globalization are appearing in Brazil, Turkey, Hong Kong, India, and in many other sites outside of the North Atlantic region. In these many sites, anthropologists are building their own critical resources as they engage with specific kinds of national debate, cultural conflict, and research tradition (Appadurai, 1999). Whatever the individual outcomes of this process, two results seem likely. Anthropology is unlikely to remain a bystander in any important national debate about globalization. Moreover, these debates are increasingly unlikely to be determined by scholars, projects, and institutions confined to Europe and the United States. What more appropriate topic could there be for international research than globalization, and what opportunity could be more appropriate for anthropology to contribute to a global scholarly debate about the world we are about to build?
As far as the United States and Western Europe are concerned, anthropologists working from these locations (who are frequently nationals of other countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East) are breaking new ground in numerous topical areas connected to globalization. A partial list of some of these important areas would include militarization and counterinsurgency (Kelly et al., 2010), new financial instruments and markets (Appadurai, 2011, 2012; Hart, 2011; Maurer, 2005, 2006; Schull, 2012; Zaloom, 2006), religion and media (Engelke, 2013; Larkin, 2008; Houtman and Meyer, 2012; Pels, 2012; Spyer, 2009), human–animal relationships (Helmreich, 2009; Ingold, 1994; Raffles,2002, 2010), infrastructure (Anand, 2011; Chalfin, 2010; de Boeck, 2011; Larkin, 2013), ethics and everyday life (Faubion, 2011; Jackson, 2013; Lambek, 2010), the Internet and cyber sociality (Boellstorff, 2008; Coleman, 2012; Ito, 2009; Miller and Slater, 2000; Turkle, 2011). These emerging interests deepen the conversation between anthropologists of globalization and scholars in other disciplines. They reflect the classical interest of anthropology in the question of what it means to be human, and ask also what this question means in an era in which the human, the global, and the planetary have become overlapping forces in our worlds.
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