Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

In Precarious Motion: From Territorial to Transnational Cultures

Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

In Precarious Motion: From Territorial to Transnational Cultures

Article excerpt

In the last two decades, there has been a reaction in anthropology against overly fixed and exoticized ethnographic portraits, an interrogation of assumptions about cultural sharing and difference, and increased concern with power relations. These have all combined to render the siting of"culture" (see Hastrup & Fog Olwig, 1997) in its relation to "place" and "locality" problematic. Recent anthropological writing about transnational processes has attempted to address these conceptual concerns by refocussing ethnographic attention on nonterritorial cultures and networks of social relations operating across state borders. In this paper, I aim to show that, multilocale studies notwithstanding, anthropological treatments of transnational processes have to date relied on a very particular repertoire of cases - those that most closely approximate the conditions of localized communities and territorially based cultures. In a similar fashion, much of the early research conducted by anthropologists in cities tried to replicate conditions of the more traditional anthropological rural sites in their framing of urban issues. As Ulf Hannerz noted nearly two decades ago, this focus constituted a kind of evasion, ignoring much of the ethnographic landscape of cities (1980: 5). The same temptation now beckons contemporary anthropologists concerned with transnational cultural and social fields. It should equally be resisted, lest the significance of the anthropological contribution to the study of global economic and political restructuring be undermined.

In this essay I will consider the nature and limitations of two influential anthropological treatments of transnational processes that, although addressing very divergent socioeconomic conditions, have a similar focus on contained and integrated systems of relations. I will then turn to my own research among expatriates in the Cayman Islands, which in contrast reveals a situation of mobility and dislocation but without the concomitant development of a well-articulated transnational social network. My example is discordant with the underlying presumption in much recent anthropological literature that economic restructuring and technological innovation are encouraging the formation of systematic transnational fields of social relations. I will argue that the circumstances impeding the development of transnational relations among expatriates migrating to and from the Cayman Islands, far from being unique, reflect more general contradictions embedded in the global political economy: opposing orientations toward deterritorialization on the one hand, and on the other, vigorous assertion of state borders and the resignification of place.

A shift in ethnographic practice away from its traditional identification with particular places is therefore not likely to be a sufficient vehicle, in and of itself, for addressing many contemporary situations of trans-statal mobility and their attendant dislocations. Whether anthropologists can in fact deal with the more diffuse and disaggregated outcomes of globalization without relinquishing the intimacy and depth of our ethnographic gaze constitutes the true challenge for those wishing to join the cross-disciplinary investigation of globalization. Such a challenge is all the more poignant for anthropologists based in Canada, which has a long history of dependence on foreign capital and which has, for centuries, been a major receiving country for international migration. It is now also a source of migrants and travellers moving to new zones of economic activity.

Deterritorialization and the "Transnational"

The sense that we are struggling as analysts to keep up with the global economic and political transformations restructuring capital, migration, state jurisdictions and production in the late 20th century is hardly specific to anthropology; it shapes a significant proportion of contemporary scholarly and popular discourse and, if anything, anthropologists have been relative latecomers to this bandwagon of commentary. …

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