Globalization, Anthropological Aspects of

views updated

Globalization, Anthropological Aspects of


In popular and scholarly discourse, the term globalization is widely used to put a name to the shape of the contemporary world. In the realms of advertising, policy making, politics, academia, and everyday talk, globalization refers to the sense that we are now living in a deeply and increasingly interconnected, mobile, and sped up world that is unprecedented, fueled by technological innovations and geopolitical and economic transformations. As a way to name our contemporary moment, the term globalization entered popular media and advertising in the early 1990s (Tsing 2000). After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the breakup of the Soviet Union, enthusiasm accelerated for increasing international trade, deregulating national economies, privatizing the state, structurally adjusting developing-world economies, and increasing the transnationalization of corporations. Globalization was the new term that signaled this triumph of the capitalist market. As social science became increasingly focused on globalization, theories of globalization emphasized the transformations in labor, capital, state, and technology that have created a heightened sense of global interconnection or what has been called by the geographer David Harvey time-space compression (Harvey 1989).

As globalization has become a dominant narrative of our times, it also has become so for the discipline of anthropology, where it is both a specific object of methodological and theoretical reflection and one of the dominant horizons for a wide variety of scholarship. It became an increasingly central preoccupation at a time when the discipline was in crisis, both methodologically and theoretically. Anthropological attempts to grapple with globalization were crucial for reworking the anthropological concept of culture and for reconfiguring ethnographic methodology. In so doing, the anthropology of globalization has expanded and nuanced dominant theories of globalization while raising questions about its effects, scope, and reach.

Dominant theories of globalization are, more often than not, macrosociological, emphasizing large-scale perspectives on economic, political, and cultural transformations that are understood to either fuel or be the effects of globalization. One of the key contributions of the anthropology of globalization has been to emphasize the interconnection between what is called the local and the global, emphasizing the interplay between large-scale global transformations and the realities of long-standing social and cultural worlds. An attention to this interplay has led to a focus on mapping and naming the large-scale shifts in culture and political economy that constitute globalizationsomething that characterizes much literature on globalization across the social sciencesbut also a focus on peoples everyday lived experiences and their transformations under conditions of globalization.

While the local-global framework of analysis shifted the macro, horizontal view of dominant theories of globalization, it also contributed to rethinking the conventional scales of ethnographic analysis. By the late 1980s the highly localized, isolated, and holistic frameworks that characterized ethnographic methodology, which is often divorced from attention to larger power structures and cultural interactions, had come under scrutiny. Whereas the anthropology of globalization emphasized the local in the face of assertions about the dominance and power of large-scale global processes, within the discipline itself contextualizing the local within the global was a key way anthropology began to shift its own frameworks for understanding the productions of culture and meaning within the contemporary world. This has led to new ways of thinking about ethnography beyond a focus on the purely place-based, local context, ones that emphasize multisited ethnography, ethnography across social scales, and ethnographies of networks, among others.

The framework of the local-global goes along with a central focus on the cultural dimensions of globalization. Dominant theories of globalization understand it as a primarily economic and political process. If these theories do pay attention to the cultural dimensions of globalization, it is often to argue that economic and political transformations that underlie globalization lead to cultural homogenization, often understood as Americanization. This thesis is often rendered in terms of the cultural consequences of dominant U.S. commodity exports such as McDonalds and U.S. television programs. The anthropology of globalization, in particular the work of Arjun Appadurai, has argued that globalization is not a monolithic U.S. export but rather a disjunctive, heterogeneous process with multiple centers of influence and interaction (Appadurai 1996). Further, culture is not simply derivative of economy and politics. The emphasis on peoples experiences, lived realities, and what Appadurai calls the social imaginary has led to an emphasis on notions of agency and resistance in the face of large-scale global processes and transformations, ones that create cultural worlds that overlap but are not simply derivative of dominant capital and labor flows. This has led to an emphasis on heterogeneous, multiple, and varied cultural responses to globalization, ones that emphasize the production of meaning within localized contexts.

An emphasis on the cultural dimensions of globalization has complicated theories of globalization focused on economy and politics, but it also has been central to transforming the anthropological concept of culture. The critique of ethnography in the late 1980s went hand in hand with a rethinking of the culture concept, which was also understood to be overly holistic, consensual, isolated, and divorced from power. Examining the productions of culture within a global framework that emphasizes everyday life as it interacts with the increasing importance of mass media and migration, among other factors, has challenged the ways anthropology has assumed the isomorphism between place and culture. The anthropology of globalization has paid significant attention to the deterritorialization of culture, which has led to a more mobile and dynamic sense of cultural production.

Anthropological scholarship on globalization is vast and varied. Ethnographies of labor, work, and capital have examined inequality and opportunity within free-trade zones and under new conditions of migration, focusing on issues of gender, generation, and class. A significant body of work has explored the experiences of migrants, particularly on identity formation and nationalism within various diasporic and transnational communities. Another important area of research has explored the impact of new consumer and commodity regimes, and significant attention has been paid to the effects and experiences of new media and other technologies on various axes of identity formation, including gender, youth, class, and nation. Increasing attention is also being paid to the effects of globalization on social movements, politics, and community organizing. Finally, significant work has examined the role of the state and transformations in nation-state formation in the context of globalization.

Although the conceptualization of local-global has been instrumental in challenging overly homogenizing and macrosociological views of globalization, it sometimes has produced an overly romanticized and simplistic view of the local as a space of resistance and authenticity. The anthropology of globalization continues to produce dynamic work that refines and complicates our sense of what constitutes the local, with attention to the intersection between history and culture at multiple scales that include the local, regional, and national as they crisscross each other in and through transnational interactions. A key challenge for the anthropology of globalization is in maintaining its assumption of the global as the space of homogeneity while arguing against this homogeneity through locating particularity and difference within the realm of the local. Contemporary work in the anthropology of globalization is complicating our sense of what constitutes the global, emphasizing the productions of locality within global capitalism and demonstrating the ways the global itself is not some abstract set of large-scale social processes; instead, it has its own particularities that can be tracked and named (Tsing 2000). Finally, anthropology continues to debate and explore what has been called the abjection of globalization (Ferguson 2002). The question of whether globalization is a good or a bad thing, particularly for the worlds poor, has been a subject of popular and political struggles that has fueled a worldwide antiglobalization movement. Anthropology has emphasized both the cultural resilience and creativity of local populations under conditions of globalization while recognizing new conditions and structures of exploitation and vulnerability. Although some argue that there is no singular notion of globalization that can be termed good or badonly an altered terrain of struggle and hope in different arenasothers seek to track, in multiple ways, structures of expanding opportunity or greater exploitation under conditions of globalization.

SEE ALSO Americanism; Culture; Cyberspace; Empire; Geography; Internet; Neoliberalism; Sociology, Macro; State, The; Technological Progress, Economic Growth; Technological Progress, Skill Bias; Telecommunications Industry


Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: The Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ferguson, James. 2002. Of Mimicry and Membership: Africans and the New World Society. Cultural Anthropology 17 (4): 551569.

Harvey, David. 1989. The Condition of Postmodernity. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Tsing, Anna. 2000. The Global Situation. Cultural Anthropology 15 (3): 327360.

Ritty Lukose

About this article

Globalization, Anthropological Aspects of

Updated About content Print Article


Globalization, Anthropological Aspects of