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  1. Introduction
  2. Earlier Attempts to Grasp Globalization
  3. Contemporary Approaches to Globalization
  4. The Global Political Economy
  5. The Global Cultural Economy
  6. Questioning “Globalization”
  7. Globalization and Development
  8. Governance, Sovereignty, and Citizenship
  9. Conclusion
  10. Bibliography

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Globalization is an inconsistent concept, and definitions of it abound. However, most anthropologists agree that, experientially, globalization refers to a reorganization of time and space in which many movements of peoples, things, and ideas throughout much of the world have become increasingly faster and effortless. Spatially and temporally, cities and towns, individuals and groups, institutions and governments have become linked in ways that are fundamentally new in many regards, especially in terms of the potential speed of interactions among them. Examples of these interactions are myriad: The click of a mouse button on a Wall Street computer can have immediate financial effects thousands of miles away on another continent, and events like the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 or footage of the 2005 tsunami in southern Asia can be televised internationally, whereby millions of viewers interpret the same images concurrently.

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Beyond these shared perspectives on and approaches to globalization, anthropologists disagree with one another in important regards. The first concerns the “what”: Does globalization name a more-or-less singular and radical transformation that encompasses the globe, in which technoeconomic advancements have fundamentally reorganized time-space, bringing people, places, things, and ideas from all corners of the world into closer contact with one another? Or, is globalization a misnomer, even a fad, a term too general to describe a vast array of situated processes and projects that are inconsistent and never entirely “global”?

A second discussion concerns the “when”: Is globalization new—do we currently live in the “global era”? Or, has the world long been shaped by human interaction spanning great distances?

These debates are not limited to two opposing sides. Some scholars feel that these very questions blunt meaningful analysis of the contemporary world and all of its nuances. By focusing largely on absolutes—that is, what is entirely singular versus wholly chaotic, what is radically new versus something predicated largely on the past— important questions are passed over. For example, what are the specific mechanisms of human interconnection and the particular histories in which they are embedded?

Anthropologists do agree, however, on how to best go about investigating globalization: through long-term, intensive fieldwork, either in a single locality or in several linked analytically together. This fieldwork is ethnographic; that is, it seeks an intimate understanding of the social and cultural dynamics of specific communities, as well as the broader social and political systems they negotiate. In a world of intensifying social relations, ethnography requires engagement in both empirical research and critical theory.

Anthropological attention to ethnographic detail is an important rejoinder to a vast globalization literature centered on macro phenomena, such as the relations between large-scale political and economic bodies like nationstates, political unions, trade organizations, and transnational corporations. Undoubtedly, these “translocal” entities are of great anthropological interest as well. Yet the discipline has taken as its goal the understanding of how specific subjects respond to and act within these large-scale processes, institutions, and discourses through culturally specific lenses. Thus, anthropology’s contribution to this literature lies in its assertion that social change, viewed in both distance-defying connections and inequitable disconnections within the world, can be compellingly grasped in the daily practices of individuals and the groups, institutions, and belief systems they inhabit.

It bears emphasis that a researcher cannot simply board a plane to “the global.” The empirical aspects of human social interaction—while facilitated by the “placelessness” of systems and structures like international finance networks, religious chat rooms, or television broadcasts—are produced, interpreted, and negotiated by people in particular places. It is for this reason that the ethnographic method has continued to define anthropological research, even as it pertains to globalization. The ethnographic emphasis has long been to follow the question, the person, the commodity, or the idea—all things that are continually mobilized or constrained by human activity. As will be argued in further detail below, anthropologists have tended to warn against the erasure of human agency in depictions of such interaction, and the discipline’s commitment to research continues to inform this warning. Some anthropologists have gone so far as to argue that empirically thin accounts of globalization, especially those that embrace it as a natural and ultimately unavoidable force in the world, actually obscure the means by which unequal relations of power are forged. The argument is significant, as anthropologists generally agree that the ability to define globalization and steer discussions pertaining to it greatly informs the decisions of wealthy and influential policymakers.

Earlier Attempts to Grasp Globalization

While often understated in current anthropological scholarship on globalization, early anthropological attempts to grasp translocal phenomena greatly influenced the discipline’s development. Indeed, anthropology has a history of engagement with translocal phenomena and has long argued that exchange across sometimes vast distances has been and is common to human social interaction. Arguably the first incarnation of such a notion is seen in the works of late 19th- and early 20th-century diffusionists, who held that cultural change was a product of initially distinct cultural traits being appropriated and dispersed among individuals and groups over great geographic distances. Franz Boas, often called the father of American anthropology, saw diffusionism as a corrective to unilineal evolutionary conceptions of culture change, which articulated the development of cultural traits as a product of independent and isolated trial and error rather than as a product of permeable social worlds facilitating cultural exchange. Boas argued as follows:

It would be an error to assume that a cultural trait had its original home in the area in which it is now most strongly developed. Christianity did not originate in Europe or America. The manufacture of iron did not originate in America or northern Europe. It was the same in early times. (Boas, 1932, p. 609)

A fellow critic of cultural evolution perspectives during Boas’s time, Bronislaw Malinowski spent over two years in the Trobriand Islands examining the kula ring, a regional system of exchange that Malinowski (1922) claimed functioned to maintain social solidarity and enhance status among males bestowing necklaces and armbands upon one another. Malinowski is most widely renowned as an early practitioner of participant observation, but Malinowski’s study also required him to practice multi-sited research, which is now seen as a sometimes necessary mode of fieldwork to “follow” translocal phenomena.

Two other anthropologists informed by functionalism and influenced by Malinowski’s study of nonmonetary exchange were Mauss and Ortiz, both of whom produced works that challenged readers to think beyond the local. Mauss’s The Gift (first published in 1923) explored the historical beginnings of translocal systems of exchange that often brought about social cohesion through gift giving and reciprocity. Mauss cited examples of this exchange among groups in the South Pacific region, as well as in North America. Originally published in 1940, Ortiz’s Cuban Counterpoint developed the concept of “transculturation” to describe the different phases of cultural hybridization between ethnically diverse groups (many of whom were arriving from foreign lands) in Cuba under colonialism. Ortiz further argued that the production and export of Cuban commodities like sugar and tobacco came to be deeply entangled with European and U.S. interests.

While the above works demonstrate early insights into the relationships between relatively small populations and an outside world, it is common to read of early 20th-century anthropology’s insular emphasis on closed, internally coherent cultural systems. Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma, first published in 1954, was a powerful response to the “bounded” conceptions of cultural change, as he took a regional scale as his point of entry into the indeterminate dynamics of identity formation in Burma. Leach also emphasized the power and creativity of individual actors to shape culture beyond local contexts.

The 1960s and the two decades that followed were formative in the history of anthropology’s engagement with large-scale processes. The political turmoil of the “libratory,” anticolonial wars, and rising nationalism in the global South during the 1960s are commonly cited as the greatest impetuses of this engagement. In addition, a principled dissatisfaction with the trajectory of anthropology and social science disciplines in general informed the reanimation of the Marxist approach known as political economy. Much of this dissatisfaction stemmed from a lack of engagement with political economy’s most central concerns: the nature of material production, class, and power.

Broadly conceived, the political economic approach within anthropology was utilized to understand the relations between large-scale processes of economic and political change and specific (usually subaltern) communities. The anthropological approach was heavily influenced by the “world-systems” theory of sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein and “underdevelopment” perspective of economist Andre Gunder Frank. Both of these thinkers emphasized the imposing gravity of the European- and American-dominated world economy. Concisely, this world economy provided a framework by which Western, or “core,” economies could systematically exploit the non-Western, or “peripheral” nations of the world through the appropriation of their economic surpluses and labor. This perspective laid out a significant critique of economic modernization theory, for both Wallerstein and Frank stressed the causal relationship between worldwide capitalist expansion and subaltern subjugation, or development and underdevelopment.

A common perception among anthropologists sympathetic to political economy was that the “periphery” category was too generalized and unnuanced. Anthropologists believed that their disciplinary proclivities could bring the diverse reactions of “micropopulations” to capitalist penetration into clearer focus and thus provide a more detailed, if not more realistic, explanation of unequal relations of power. Eric Wolf and Sydney Mintz were exemplary in their efforts to conjoin the broad focus of world systems theory with anthropology’s long-established object of study, the social dynamics of the subaltern.

Wolf demonstrated his materialist approach in his influential and ironically titled Europe and the People Without History (1982). The book sought ambitiously to trace the history of capitalism’s expansion and eventual penetration into precapitalist societies, and thus account for the means by which particular non-Western localities were transformed into production sites of primary goods— gold and diamonds in South Africa, coffee in Mexico, and rubber in the Amazon, to name only a few of Wolf’s examples—for Western consumption and profiteering. Wolf’s analytic brush was decidedly broad, as he sought to outline patterns of this expansion and penetration on a massive geographic scale.

Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), while geographically narrower in its focus, was nevertheless an ambitious anthropological investigation of the politics of production and consumption between a metropole and colony during the 17th through 19th centuries. Mintz argued that slave labor in the Caribbean was a means for sugar to become a highly valued and common commodity in England. His work is important because it demonstrated that the Caribbean producers of sugar were crucial actors in the shaping of the lifeworlds of metropolitan centers of global capitalism.

Contemporary Approaches to Globalization

Much the same as intellectual forebears like Boas, Malinowski, and Mintz, anthropologists today are apt to favor specificity and variation over generalization and central tendency. Anthropology has, subsequently, tended to shy away from grand theories that can essentialize peoples and characterize histories as predetermined. Indeed, a continued interest of anthropologists is to investigate how individuals and groups negotiate their social worlds in creative and unexpected ways. However, this has not prevented anthropologists from using macro theories as frameworks for inquiry nor from intimating how ethnographic detail is indicative of broader social configurations. The main point is that empirically supported arguments are paramount. This is where long-term, immersed fieldwork has been and remains a central element of anthropological contributions to the scholarship on globalization.

Yet the disciplinary interest in globalization has sparked debate about the future of fieldwork methodology. Indeed, while the ethos of anthropology continues to privilege singlesited fieldwork (as this has long been considered the best means to become versed in the social processes of a given community), many argue that a world of intensifying human relations has left traditional fieldwork approaches outmoded. In an effort to address this challenge, George Marcus (1995) outlined two strategies. The first argues for the use of archival data, as well as macro theory, to situate specific communities or individuals in larger socioeconomic processes. Ann Stoler’s Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (2002), as well as Fernando Coronil’s The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela (1997) are prominent examples of this approach.

The second method involves moving out from single sites to conduct “multisited” ethnography in order to examine movements of ideas, peoples, and things. Carolyn Nordstrom’s Shadows of War: Violence, Power, and International Profiteering in the Twenty-First Century (2004) takes this as its task, using ethnographic methods to track the mobility of goods and money throughout largescale extralegal exchange systems fueling conflict, marginalization, and profiteering.

The Global Political Economy

While definitions of globalization abound, the greatest differences in such definitions are typically a matter of emphasis. Modern-day political economic anthropologists, for example, clearly emphasize political and economic processes that structure and are structured by landscapes of human interaction. Like Wolf and Mintz, these anthropologists view the political economic approach as a necessary corrective to scholarship that historically turned interconnected people and places into distinctive and disconnected phenomena. A great number of medical anthropologists, for example, call for anthropologists to cast light on the historical and contemporary connections and disconnections within the capitalist world system that bring about human affliction. Both Paul Farmer and Nancy Scheper-Hughes are archetypes of this contemporary political economy of health approach. Paul Farmer’s “An Anthropology of Structural Violence” (2004) outlines the historically deep and geographically broad exploitive relations between Haiti and the United States that have predestined the deaths of Haiti’s impoverished to AIDS and tuberculosis. Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s “The Global Traffic in Human Organs” (2000) argues that economic globalization has facilitated the creation of an extensive market for the illicit harvest and trade of human body parts. Within this market, impoverished populations are targeted by brokers who, with the help of surgeons, turn high profits by selling these human organs and tissues to wealthier consumers in the global North.

Phenomena like these, political economists assert, are associated with the advent of late-modern capitalism— now commonly called “neoliberal globalization.” Neoliberal globalization refers to the predominate theory of free market capitalism, which these analysts argue continues to be the primary engine of globalization. The term neoliberalism itself underscores an important element of the political economic argument—that globalization is a human-made and ideologically driven set of processes.

The focus on neoliberalism is also one manner in which scholars have come to conceptualize how the contemporary moment is fundamentally different from the past. The most clearly articulated and influential starting point for many scholars of this school of thought is David Harvey, a Marxist geographer who in his significant work The Condition of Postmodernity (1989) argued that economic restructuring and associated social and political changes in Western economies in the early 1970s sparked a fundamental reorganization of global commerce that sped up the turnover times of capital. These changes were characterized, according to Harvey, by an increasing sense of spatial attenuation and temporal acceleration in human economic and social relations. Harvey refered to this sensation as time-space compression, which was brought on by the collapse of significant geographic and temporal barriers to commerce. This collapse was a byproduct of an economic experiment promoted during a crisis of capital accumulation and subsequent recession that existing Keynesian fiscal and monetary policies could do little to stop. The experiment involved the transition from the Fordist model of standardized commodity production and its related system of political and social regulation (the dominant mode of capitalism since the end of World War II) to the post-Fordist model of flexible accumulation. The increased velocity and reach of market transactions this new regime of accumulation prompted were realized through substantial innovations in transport and information technologies. Harvey’s 2005 book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, traces the neoliberal influence behind this shift, arguing that the transition was a political project intended to reinvigorate elite class power and capital accumulation mechanisms.

Perhaps the most recent and representative anthropological effort to further develop this perspective is Jean and John Comaroff’s “Millenial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming” (2000). The Comaroffs argue that neoliberal globalization at the turn of the millennium is a process that alienates capital from labor and marshals consumption as the primary shaper of social and economic phenomena like popular civil society discourses, occult economies and religious movements, and global youth cultures.

Much of the anthropological literature on neoliberalism thus far has focused less on the logic and mechanisms of its production and administration (though this is increasingly a field of study, as some anthropologists turn their eyes to understanding the inner workings of institutions like the WTO, IMF, and World Bank), and more on the impact of, and resistances to, neoliberal globalization. June Nash’s Mayan Visions: The Quest for Autonomy in an Age of Globalization (2001) is a representative ethnography of this focus, as is Jeffrey Juris’s Networking Futures: The Movements Against Corporate Globalization (2008).

The Global Cultural Economy

A second approach to globalization, coming to prominence in the early 1990s, places greater emphasis on anthropology’s most common focus of attention: culture. (See Kearney, 1995, for an excellent summary of perspectives during the early 1990s.) Many proponents of this cultural approach, while acknowledging the world’s deep history of social interaction, tend to stress the fundamental newness of the present, going so far as to describe a new global era. One of these proponents, Arjun Appadurai, writes a radical reply to center-periphery models of political economy and proposes that any framework emphasizing order in the present globalizing world is deluded. Appadurai’s Modernity at Large (1996) understands the new global era as having been brought about by a complex and rapidly changing global cultural economy of exchange. The birth of this new era was facilitated by phenomena like media and migration, and both of these have served to reorganize nationstates and mobility on a global scale. Appadurai proposes that this chaotic world be grasped through five dimensions he calls scapes, or the landscapes across which cultural flows travel: ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, financescapes, and ideoscapes. These scapes overlap to constitute the particular lifeworlds of individuals across the world—each lifeworld being wholly individualized. In short, Appadurai posits a disorganized, centerless world in which no single view yields any grasp of larger processes—the ubiquitous flows of ideas, technologies, objects, and images constituting the global cultural economy are nonisomorphic and indeterminate.

A perspective similar to Appadurai’s, and borrowing from Ernesto Laclau, is that of Inda and Rosaldo (2008), who describe the contemporary world as “dislocated.” The use of this term is intended to emphasize that a plurality of centers serve as the hubs of cultural traffic across the globe. This perspective, as well as Appadurai’s, draws on ethnographic examinations of movements of commodities, people, and images and how these movements are perceived, translated, or appropriated by specific groups with whom they come into contact. At first glance, such movements suggest a significant imbalance in international exchange between the global North and South. Indeed, many Western, and indeed American, products like CocaCola, McDonald’s, and films are promptly visible in a variety of contexts far from Europe and North America. It is from these and other observations that analysts have often come to consider cultural imperialism as a force of homogenization that levels cultural difference throughout the world (see Tomlinson, 1991).

Yet cultural homogenization assumes that the essential meaning of a commodity or idea is consistent and universally legible—meaning that, for example, a Sri Lankan teenager will interpret an Indiana Jones film the same way a German teenager might. Subsequently, it could be inferred that the circulation of Western commodities or ideas will have predictable local effects. Anthropologists argue that there is little inevitability in such exchanges. Rather, a consumer applies her or his own cultural perspectives to the interpretation of objects and ideas, culturally tailoring them in the process. Laura Bohannan (1966) discovered as much in the 1960s when she observed a West African production, and subsequent interpretation, of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Liebes and Katz’s The Export of Meaning: Cross-Cultural Readings of Dallas (1990) is a modern retelling of Bohannan’s experience, demonstrating how the popular American television program Dallas was quite variously received among Moroccan Jews, Russian Jews, and Arabs.

The cultural tailoring described above has, in many instances, become a rather common element of cultural interaction across the world, especially in light of myriad technological advances and their ability to radically compress time and space (see Harvey, 1989). Due to this, many researchers have come to see culture as less stabilized and more diffuse, going so far as to claim that globalization has “deterritorialized” culture.

As argued earlier, many anthropologists have historically mapped culture onto territorially demarcated places, understanding distinctiveness as a product of social structures within supposedly locally bounded spheres. Said differently, place was the container of culture. (For example, the nation-state of China contained “Chinese culture.”) Gupta and Ferguson rebuke these analyses and call for anthropologists to examine how such conceptions produce difference and reinforce unequal relations of power. They further argue that cultural forms cannot be conceptualized as being fastened to specific geographic locations. Rather, the contemporary world is characterized by the freeing of culture from specific localities, and the notion of deterritorialization captures this process.

Deterritorialization also stresses the tension central to the commonly articulated local/global dichotomy. Indeed, as individuals and groups engage with and are shaped by processes that connect their local worlds with others, cultural forms can come to have an impact regardless of whether they originate in the global North or South. Thus, the significance of non-Western cultural forms circulating in contexts outside of their origins should not be underestimated. Examples of this are everywhere visible, from the ethnic cuisine consumed in the global North, to popularly imported and exported religious beliefs like Buddhism, to non-Western modes of dress like headscarves that have engendered much debate in some European countries. This is due to the fact that while cultural forms become unfastened from one locality, they simultaneously fasten themselves to new contexts and can become highly relevant. Anthropologists cite examples like these to suggest that cultural and even political-economic exchange between the North and South can be mutually significant, or “relational” in its character. Hannerz (1996), borrowing from linguistics, referred to this relationality as the “creolization” of the core and periphery.

Further examples of this exchange are human migration and trafficking, which have left many culturally uprooted peoples “reterritorialized” in foreign lands where they navigate new ways of living with aspects of their cultural identity they have carried with them. Analysts often refer to such individuals and groups as transnational, as they move across and between national boundaries. At times, the connections between these “old” and “new” communities are so strong that anthropologists have argued they should be understood as single communities scattered in multiple localities.

Ultimately, the arguments and examples outlined above suggest that the world be viewed as a complex global society composed of interweaving cultural, political, and economic processes and forms. This is not to suggest that globalization engenders a homogenous global population, but rather to recognize the untethered nature and intensified potential of interactions between populations. Anthropologists argue that only continued heterogeneity within this global society can be assumed.

Of course, the discipline has been careful not to assume that movements are experienced by all peoples, things, and ideas or that all experience movements in the same way.

Indeed, many have argued that such processes have left areas and peoples excluded and marginalized. David Graeber (2002) made the point that processes of economic globalization like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have in fact tightened many national borders, and he cited numbers suggesting that since NAFTA’s inception in 1992, the number of guards along the border between the United States and Mexico has more than tripled. Moreover, anthropologists like Escobar (2001) have argued that too great a focus on the deterritorialization of culture can obscure processes of place making, as well as the fact that people continue to imagine and build cultural forms that are situated in specific localities.

Questioning “Globalization”

As intimated earlier, the anthropological commitment to fieldwork has led many researchers to avoid nonempirical assumptions as to what globalization might be or what effects it might engender. Subsequently, the concept of globalization has been disputed by some anthropologists frustrated with its imprecise and assumptive nature. This view is summarized by Cooper (2005), who separates “global” from its affix “ization” to call attention to the term’s problematic insinuations.

The first of these pertains to the scale of globalization— namely, that it is singular and worldwide, that it is something that encompasses the earth. Cooper argues that empirical truths about the world do not reflect the notion of global interconnection. Indeed, vast stretches of the planet, most notably in sub-Saharan Africa, remain largely disconnected from the wider world. As Ferguson (2006) has noted, movements of commodities, images, and ideas tend to hop over these geographic expanses, rather than smoothly envelop them. Equally problematic, according to Cooper, is the fact that a process that is global is everywhere and immeasurable, and therefore of little analytic value.

Second, the affix suggests the “when” of globalization— that it is currently happening, that this is the “global era.” Cooper contends that one must be cautious in asserting that such mobilizations and exchanges are historically novel—or an original product of a contemporary global framework. Such an assertion ignores the fact that massive labor migrations (forced or otherwise) in the past engendered the diverse cultures with which we currently identify. In fact, Cooper has argued that movements of laborers in the 19th century were in fact more substantial than those of the present day. It is therefore more accurately stated that human mobility and interaction have been processes long defining cultures across the globe, though contemporary movements of people continue to create novel cultural dynamics and milieus. Similarly, Tsing (2000) has asserted that theories contending the absolute newness of a global era tend to obscure historical happenings that offer insight into both the past and present.

These analysts call attention to the fact that, due to its magnitude, globalization is a concept that must be imagined rather than directly experienced. Yet this is not to suggest that a singular system is out there—that it is simply a matter of lacking the proper tools to see it in its entirety. A metaphor commonly invoked to describe globalization imagines several blind men examining the extremities of an elephant. One man touches the trunk, another a tusk. Several stroke the elephant’s legs. Each man will argue that he knows what the elephant is, or how the elephant in its entirety appears. Yet due to the size of the elephant and the sensory limitations of the men, none has the ability to know it fully. The problem with this metaphor is that it assumes a singular entity—the elephant—or a coherent framework that one claims to know is there but cannot fully experience. The consensus among critical anthropologists like Cooper and Tsing disputes this, arguing that globalization is an analytic construct, not a coherent world-making system. Moreover, they argue that collecting the variety of exchanges shaping relationships in the world under a single moniker makes for an inadequate analytic category, for it fails to capture the specific mechanisms of interconnection and the histories in which they are embedded. This is a view that rejects a singular world-making system in favor of a pluralization and inconsistency of agendas, projects, and processes. These international projects may be grand in scale, but they are not uniformly consistent or all encompassing. They vary according to the terms of their creation as well as their sites of origin.

These anthropologists call for examining globalization from a critical distance, paying attention to the arguments and mechanisms by which theories of globalization are mobilized. One example of this would be to challenge the exclusively celebratory espousals of globalization—what is often referred to as the “globalist” perspective—that, through popular media information, attempt to influence ideas of wealth and mobility. The power in this information lies in its ability to reproduce a specific logic that many globalist pundits advance—that of globalization’s huge potentiality. This can be misleading, however, as the life of a farmer or laborer in the global South may be so socially and economically constrained as to prevent her from traveling to the closest major city, much less jet-set about the world.

Moreover, the critical distance approach is especially important in light of the fact that influential discourses defining globalization inform the decisions of the world’s powerbrokers, especially transnational governing bodies like the World Bank, IMF, and WTO, as well as powerful nations whose leaders read popular political pundits. It is important to emphasize here that talk about difference can move quickly about the world, mobilizing individuals and institutions to act upon it for the purposes of security, economic profit, stability, and other aspirations. In this sense, talk about globalization, when wielded by actors embedded in complex relations of power, can have very real effects in people’s everyday lives.

By way of example, a number of recent dialogues in North American academic and public circles have focused less on the homogenization of culture (or cultural imperialism) and more on cultural difference, while maintaining that a more or less singular global framework brings about foreseeable effects. This talk articulates a gray zone between globalization’s positive and negative consequences, sketching a context in which cultural heterogeneity and increasing global mobility create both opportunity and threat. These claims to know a singular global system can have powerful effects. On the one hand, recent national best sellers by popular political pundits hail globalization as a force that flattens the world, creating an even playing field for those “willing” to participate. They inform international policy at the World Economic Forum and chastise governments resisting privatization and deregulation of large industries. On the other hand, these works instill a sense of fear in the post–9/11 world, as many nations and groups are depicted as foils to global connection—their own development complicated by dated cultural beliefs and traditions that ultimately threaten to violently derail the future. Thus, while globalization has brought us closer to allies, it has also compressed the world in such a way as to make it more vulnerable to conflict and resistance. Ultimately, these are fears of difference in which cultural heterogeneity, rather than the worldwide “McDonaldization” of societies, is emphasized.

A number of anthropologists have felt compelled to respond to these conceptions of globalization. Besteman and Gusterson’s Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back (2005), for example, takes its inspiration from public anthropologists like Boas and Mead and wields an anthropological sensibility with ethnographic evidence to challenge the destructive myths of America’s most popular pundits writing about globalization. The volume’s chapters are written in clear and compelling language, and are thus geared toward a general audience.

Finally, some anthropologists have cast a critical eye on the theoretical underpinnings of anthropological approaches to globalization, calling attention to the problematic gendering of epistemologies attempting to capture large-scale social change. Freeman’s “Is Local: Global as Feminine: Masculine?” (2001) provocatively examines the implications of the partition of masculine macro theories of globalization (which largely ignore gender) and ethnographic approaches to globalization emphasizing locality and gender.

Globalization and Development

Globalization is a term that has, in many instances, come to replace the older and no less complex notion of “development.” In fact, Edelman and Haugerud (2005) have argued that globalization has replaced the term development as the new action word of contemporary international governance discourse. Not simply a term that describes an inevitable process that is shaping the modern world, globalization, when conflated with development, is a metapolicy guiding the way to social and economic well-being in the global South.

The replacement of development by globalization is also evident in South American contexts like Venezuela and Bolivia, where supposed antiglobalization social movements and nationalization policies have been viewed by many Northern countries and transnational organizations as detrimental to international peace and global economic stability. In contrast, these Northern governing bodies espouse state-led implementation of globalizationfriendly principles for the sake of individual nations’ prosperity, as well as prosperity for the world. Thus, it is by ultimately opening up borders and financially connecting to the wider world that nations soar themselves out of poverty and into the global marketplace, developing in the process.

The two most influential anthropological works on development, Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine (1994) and Escobar’s Encountering Development (1994), challenge this widespread thinking. Ferguson argued that in fact such development schemes usually fail and in the process further embed countries in the exploitative systems that were intended to help them. Ferguson also faulted these schemes for overlooking the social and historical specificities of countries and favoring techomanagerial solutions that are generally applicable to all “developing” countries.

In his influential book, Escobar attempted to denaturalize “development” by situating it in the political aftermath of World War II, when, in 1949, President Harry Truman argued for “developed” nations of the world to systematically restructure the global South, reconfiguring the world in the image of “advanced” nations. Following

Walt Whitman Rostow and his work The Stages of Economic Growth (1960), many policymakers and social scientists in the years following Truman’s speech came to view development as the establishment of preconditions for the “take off ” from traditionality to modernity. Escobar examined how this language and categorization of development problems becomes the official knowledge of international development experts and how this expertise subsequently becomes unanchored to any political, cultural, or historical context. He ultimately argued that this categorization, or naming, of peoples and places as objects of development interventions has devastating material effects: Targeted “underdeveloped” communities are often left worse off than they were prior to the intervention, and in addition, increasingly reliant of foreign aid.

Governance, Sovereignty, and Citizenship

To what extent can it be said that recent transformations have changed how states govern and with what efficacy? Globalist claims have often declared the demise of the state with the dissolving of national borders and the rise of international governing institutions like the WTO, World Bank, and IMF. Yet, as Tsing (2000) noted, this idea assumes that nationstates have been historically consistent and omnipresent.

There is little doubt that the development of international law and institutions upholding it have changed the means by which many states govern their populations. However, proclamations of the global dissolving of nationstates are exaggerated, according to anthropologists. This does not mean that states have not changed at all. Indeed, contrary to the traditional doctrine of sovereignty, many states are now held accountable by international authorities and in many instances are forced to comply with their policies. The degree to which such states are actually constrained and reshaped by international institutions varies, of course, from context to context. (Merry’s 2006 overview of anthropology’s engagement with international law is instructive on the above points.) Thus, one could argue that the sovereignty of states in the present has been to a large degree reorganized, if not in many instances greatly circumscribed. Sharma and Gupta (2005), in their important volume The Anthropology of the State, argued that “sovereignty can no longer be seen as the sole purview or ‘right’ of the modern state but is, instead, partially disentangled from the nation-state and mapped onto supra-national and non-governmental organizations” (p. 7).

The shifting nature of governance and states at present comes to heavily bear on conceptions of citizenship within countries. Many anthropologists argue that globalization has reformulated many notions of and policies pertaining to citizenship. Ong (1999), for example, used the term flexible citizenship to grasp how individuals and groups deploy various strategies to evade, as well as profit from, various national regimes of citizenship. Ong argues that the elite, flexible Chinese citizens have discarded traditional notions of nationalism in favor of a “postnational ethos” that transcends national boundaries for the sake of participation in the global capitalist market.


When considering the various viewpoints outlined above, it is important to remember that anthropologists’ commitment to fieldwork and the empirical evidence it produces significantly informs their perception of the global. Said succinctly, where anthropologists work shapes their perspective on globalization. It is not surprising to find, then, that the most influential anthropologists working in sub-Saharan Africa talk of global disconnection, while many working in the metropolitan cities of India stress the interconnection brought about by a global cultural economy. Due to this, it should equally be stressed that every view of the global is always a view from somewhere. There is no perch from which an analyst can ascertain the world from an objective, comprehensive position.

Yet the contrasts in the above perspectives are highly positive in that they produce a creative tension that thwarts stagnation in favor of fresh approaches and directions for the study of globalization. One product of this tension has been an active emphasis on “studying up,” or turning a critical eye to national and international institutions and actors whose projects aim to influence social and economic change. The recent anthropological concentration on the predominate economic philosophy of the present—neoliberalism—is laudable in this regard. Important recent works—like Ong and Collier’s Global Assemblages (2005); Petryna, Lakoff, and Kleinman’s Global Pharmaceuticals (2006); and Fisher and Downey’s Frontiers of Capital (2006)—take states, transnational governing bodies like the World Bank and WTO, human rights NGOs, corporations, and even powerful individuals like the U.S. chairman of the Federal Reserve as objects of ethnographic analysis.

Furthermore, the means by which anthropologists go about examining these objects, as well as the way they write about them, is changing. The fact that anthropologists are increasingly turning their focus to the world’s powerbrokers means that they take the discourses and policies of these powerbrokers very seriously. This is all the more important because anthropologists tend to disagree with these discourses and policies and subsequently wish to dispute them. Yet in order to successfully dispute them, anthropologists must write for audiences outside of the discipline. Two works already mentioned, Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong and Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order, are prominent examples of this endeavor.

All told, the above discussion signals a much more general development in which anthropologists are increasingly seeking to bring their disciplinary perspective to bear on public discussions of globalization. Anthropology is one among many disciplines that can greatly contribute to this ongoing discussion.


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