Anthropology in a Time of Globalization

Aug 17 2011 - 11:21am

Today, the university, and more particularly the American university, appears in need of direction.  It is disoriented and reoriented by the fact of globalization, although the nature and dimensions of this phenomenon remain opaque. What does it mean to be a citizen of the world?  This is an urgent question for those who are attempting to conceive of the pedagogical task that confronts the Global University seeking to train students for global citizenship.

The first model is one in which we train students for a globality conceived along the model of cosmopolitanism, in which individuals are brought together in shared recognition of the same structures of personhood, rights and obligations.  It holds out an image of universality as that which is superimposed on cultural difference.  This is the kind of discourse that gave us the work of the “culture at a distance” school, most famously represented by Columbia’s own Ruth Benedict. 

The second model prepares students for globality on the basis of a presumed universal translatability.  It treats all cultures as comparable, but conceives of comparison as a question of parallelism, encouraging students to find similar principles everywhere.  This essentially multicultural model has increasingly made culture and cultural difference a site of value.  With respect to the latter, I am thinking of both cultural tourism and those dimensions of the commodity economy that mobilize the idea of indigenous knowledge as a means of creating surplus value.

A third model teaches globality as the telos of capital, and reads cultural difference as a vanishing trace within a system that tends toward homogenization.  This model implies a trajectory of de-localization, and makes historicization the primary instrument of anthropology.  In this case, culture is not that to be managed but that in need of memorialization.  A very considerable element of the international culture industry is premised on this vision.

There is a fourth model that arises at the point where these three intersect. At a workshop I attended at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, this mode of knowledge production was entitled “experimentalization,” which is characterized by a structure that distributes the means and ends of knowledge along the lines of geopolitical history, and class difference.  It refers to the subjection of certain, impoverished populations to the role of scene for knowledge-production.  Hastened pharmaceutical trials, authorized in the name of epidemic, are perhaps the most obvious example here.   In the regime of experimentalization, anthropologists are often asked to “control for culture.”  This does not mean they do so, but it is the task most frequently fantasized for them.

What these four models—neither exclusive nor exhaustive—share is a particular understanding of anthropology as the discipline that produces knowledge about others.  Many understandings of the Global University tacitly approve this idea, and seek to capitalize on it.  But the truth is, we don’t know what globalization will bring.  And it is for this unknown future that we must prepare.  What the Global University needs to produce is a pedagogy in which students not only learn about other ways of doing and being, but learn to learn from them.  A better question, at least for the task of globalization, is not: “What is the content of another’s thought?” but “How do they pose their questions?”

The task of the Global University cannot simply be to produce and reproduce a global elite in its own image.  It must be to cultivate new forms of learning, which can prepare us for the not-yet-known forms that globalization will foster.  In this context, it seems to me that the Global Centers may offer an opportunity for re-conceiving the practice by which we have prepared our students to be citizens in the world, because elsewhere, others are also thinking the problem of globality.  We must dislodge the binary structure in which the Global Centers are sites for us to merely expand our own knowledge about that site.  There is an opportunity here to re-appropriate this possibility as one in which we put ourselves into expanding circles of knowledge-production and self-critique, by engaging different traditions of posing questions.  The capacity to pose questions is, I believe, inscribed in every work of culture everywhere, and at all times.  It is that capacity –in its myriad forms – that we need most to cultivate.  But it can only be accessed through the slow and meticulous learning to learn from others that occurs in and through particular languages.  This means that all education for the world that globalization will produce must also engage language.  In my opinion, anthropology has a role to play in this process – not because it provides fixed and testable knowledge about cultural others, but because, like other disciplines in the critical social sciences and humanities, it provides the means to engage with the long-lived and emerging traditions of concept, metaphor and critique that every culture entails.


This is abridged from a paper presented at the Columbia Goes Global Conference in March, 2011. To see the paper in its entirety, click here.



This is a great article.