Anthropology of the Global, Globalizing Anthropology: A Commentary

By Friedman, Jonathan | Anthropologica, July 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Anthropology of the Global, Globalizing Anthropology: A Commentary


Friedman, Jonathan, Anthropologica


The articles in this volume successfully tackle the challenge of doing ethnographic analysis of global/local processes, a sorely needed remedy to the general lack of such empirical grounding in much of the literature on globalization. While I myself have often been associated with such overgeneralized statements about the world system, I must confess here that my own introduction into the global was via ethnographic encounter, primarily that of my partner Kajsa Ekholm Friedman who wrote the first articles on this issue in the early seventies (1975, 1976). These were hard times for global thinking and I was quite negative to it myself at the start. However, long battles convinced me of the necessity of this approach. Ekholm Friedman's confrontation with the global resulted from her fieldwork in northern Madagascar, on the island of Nossi Be where she discovered that it was impossible to account for the nature of the local societies without an understanding of the way in which they were constituted in (if not by) their position within the Indian Ocean trade with all its shifting power relations over the past 500 years. This led to what we felt was a need to delve into the understanding of the mechanisms of what was then designated as the global system. As virtually no anthropologists were interested in the global in this period and were even quite hostile to the approach, we began working with ancient historians, archaeologists and geographers. This co-operation led to a series of publications that were obviously external to the community of social and cultural anthropologists who were quite anchored in the local until well into the eighties when "globalization" became a popular topic in a whole range of discourses that filtered into anthropology. This required a great deal of theoretical and quite abstract reasoning from our point of view, but after several years of this we did in fact return to a series of ethnographic based studies, in Central Africa, in Hawaii and more recently in Sweden.

We are not of the opinion that there is any contradiction in maintaining a theoretical position as well as insisting on ethnographic detail. But I think it can be argued that following the decline of materialism in the social sciences in the early eighties, there emerged a clear rejection of any sort of theory in anthropology. Geertz (1973) championed this kind of strategy in arguing against the theoreticism of Lévi-Strauss and insisting that anthropology was primarily about the amassing of exotica, an argument that reduced theory to a kind of western folk model. This was not an idea without its merits of course and was worthy of discussion, but there was no discussion. Instead this kind of totalizing relativism in which all propositions about the world could be reduced to culture became institutionalized in the early work of Rorty (1979) and postmodernism. The entire relativist project was reinterpreted as cultural radicalism by Marcus/Fischer (1986) and others who saw the revelation of cultural difference as an exposure in and of itself to alternative ways of going about the world, a kind of museum of revolutionary futures, in which Marx was replaced by Mead, followed by Geertz, implicitly designated as a kind of Lenin of relativism. One product of this was a plethora of atheoretical monographs in which it was not always clear what issue was to be tackled. Globalization, which was imported into anthropology from already existing discourses in cultural sociology, business economics, economic geography and cultural studies (especially in its postcolonial variant) emerged in this period in which culturalism was dominant as an understanding of the world. Thus globalization was dealt with as a cultural process or at least culture was identified as the substance that was to be globalized. The logic of this argument is as follows: culture is textualized in Geertz and most post-Geertzians including the postmodernists although this is messed up by the proliferation of voices. …

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