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  Written by
  Arjun Appadurai


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A University's Lexicon


 


New questions for a new world
>>Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai

Anthropology, especially that branch of anthropology concerned with living cultures and societies, has for some time now been moving away from its exclusive focus on small-scale, far-away, and low-technology societies, characterized generically as being as different from those of the modern West as was imaginable. These societies have, over the last century, been swept up by the spread of nationalism, mass media, capitalist markets, and mass political parties. They are now irretrievably part of our world. So anthropology now is part of a complex division of labor, and its own efforts mesh with those of political scientists, sociologists, economists, and other kinds of scholars. Globalization is the most recent, and striking, of these waves of change, and it has simultaneously changed anthropology and the human societies it seeks to understand. Anthropologists now study advertising and supermarkets, new currencies and religious movements, stock markets and genetic engineering, the organ trade and the Olympics. To all of these complex, mobile, transnational phenomena, they bring their traditional concerns: an eye for everyday experience, a feeling for how different dimensions of human society hang together, sympathy for moral positions which they may not personally endorse, and an instinct for the ways in which the Davids of this world may yet contain its Goliaths. In studying these complex phenomena, anthropologists have found that they can make special contributions to a few major questions that appear to characterize the world of globalization, a world of interlinked markets, hybrid identities, and mobile social groups and ideologies.

The most challenging of these questions is how cultural diversity seems to survive, even thrive, in the face of those massive forces which produce standardization through advertising, marketing, and commodification. As the world grows more tightly connected and global tastes, fads, and fashions appear to sweep across societies with ever greater force, human beings appear to move even faster to place their own signatures on global packages and lifestyles, leading to a steady profusion of new and hybrid ideologies, cultural designs, and national political styles. How does this form of diversification connect with the forces of homogenization?

A related question of special concern to anthropologists is the global resurgence in violent forms of national and cultural identification, which frequently lead to cultural warfare, even to ethnocide. Such expressions of cultural fundamentalism appear somehow to be connected to the opening of cultural borders, to worldwide anxieties about religious and group identity, to transformations and crises of the economy, and to abrupt shifts of population because of movements of refugees, exiles, and other kinds of immigrants. Why are xenophobic forms of identification growing just when knowledge and experience of an intimately linked globe also appears to be growing? Why recurrent chauvinism, instead of growing tolerance and cosmopolitanism? Answering these questions requires anthropologists to take a fresh look at intercultural communications as a context for cultural identities.

Finally, since human beings still require kinship, friendship, neighborhoods, and intimacy for the reproduction of social life, anthropologists are being challenged to rethink these forms and practices of intimacy in a high-velocity, electronically connected world. What are the emerging forms of kinship, social solidarity, and personal attachment in a world where families cross continents, where friendships are made and broken on the Internet, and where political crises and labor markets divide neighbors and friends? Human beings still make life meaningful through their intimate experiences and proximate expectations but under new conditions of speed and scale. What are these new conditions doing to the reproduction of intimacy and the sense of cultural stability on which we all depend?Finally, since human beings still require kinship, friendship, neighborhoods, and intimacy for the reproduction of social life, anthropologists are being challenged to rethink these forms and practices of intimacy in a high-velocity, electronically connected world. What are the emerging forms of kinship, social solidarity, and personal attachment in a world where families cross continents, where friendships are made and broken on the Internet, and where political crises and labor markets divide neighbors and friends? Human beings still make life meaningful through their intimate experiences and proximate expectations but under new conditions of speed and scale. What are these new conditions doing to the reproduction of intimacy and the sense of cultural stability on which we all depend?

These basic questions, and many others, are forcing anthropology to devise new methods and strategies for empirical research. More important, they are drawing anthropology into a wider conversation between the humanities and the social sciences, about the construction of intimacy and identity under conditions of large-scale connectivity and rapid change.

Arjun Appadurai, AM'73, PhD'76, is Samuel N. Harper professor in the Department of Anthropology and professor in South Asian languages and civilizations and the College, as well as director of the Globalization Project. He is author of Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minnesota, 1996) and editor of a forthcoming collection of essays titled Globalization (Duke, 2000).


  DECEMBER 2000

  > > Volume 93, Number 2


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