Globalization: Touchstone Policy Concept or Sucked Orange?

By Hackenberg, Robert A. | Human Organization, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Globalization: Touchstone Policy Concept or Sucked Orange?


Hackenberg, Robert A., Human Organization


Globalization: Touchstone Policy Concept or Sucked Orange?1

Applied Anthropology Theory: The Black Hole

The admitted theoretical impoverishment of applied anthropology, like confessions of the general decline of the parent discipline, have gone through so many iterations they begin to sound like prayer formulas (see Baba 1994; Weiner 1995; Peacock 1997; Schiffer 1999). Let us try to break the mold and open a path toward theory building.

As applied anthropologists our goal is to contribute to policy formation. A proposed intervention that addresses a recognized need within a framework of accepted theory has a chance to influence policy. In decades past, such frameworks as acculturation, urbanization, modernization, and development served us well. Now each has either been discarded or become entangled in acrimonious disputes (Escobar 1995; Ahmed and Shore 1995; Gardner and Lewis 1996; Horowitz 1996).

Combining this situation with the widespread assault on "positivism," i.e., the comparative-generalizing route to theory-building, one is tempted to ask, "Is theory for anthropologists?"2 An affirmative answer requires only that we follow our time-honored practice of appropriating and reworking somebody else's model (as we have done with Durkheim, Weber, and Marx).

But it is late in the day. The model we choose should permit us to join in a discourse already in progress. The model at hand is globalization. And we may contribute a unique and valuable perspective by focusing on the interface between the global force field and selected points of impact-the local level at which we may seek to intervene.

Globalization as Paradigm

John Lewis Gaddis (1999) recently observed that 21st century geopolitics replicates changes as basic as tectonic movements, joining or separating societal segments like sections of terrain along a fault line. Conjunctive movements are exemplified by the recent formation of the Southern Cone Common Market (MERCOSUR), European Economic Union (EEU), North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), World Trade Organization (WTO) and the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The fragmentation of the USSR and the debacle unfolding in the Balkans exemplify dispersal, together with a large catalog of ethnic separations (Kaplan 1998). Both of these oppositional tendencies are subsumed within a master process: globalization.

Gaddis (1999:67), like a spate of other recent observers (Friedman 1999; Barber 1996; Barnet 1994), maintains that globalization subsumes both economic expansion, which includes "integration, interdependence, multilateralism, openness and interpenetration" and political fragmentation which, conversely, involves "disintegration, autarchy, unilateralism, separatism, and heterogeneity."

During the 1990s, supranational economic power has expanded via megamergers and offshore investment in plant capacity at a breathtaking pace. But the calamitous threat of a global meltdown is implicit in the competitive forces characterizing world markets (Soros 1997, 1999). At the same time, political retrenchment in the face of secessionist tendencies and the clamor for recognition of multicultural diversity by subnational groups has become ever more insistentand ever more threatening to global stability (David 1999).

The resulting dynamic asymmetry provides fertile ground for the design of comparative-generalizing inquiries promising a rich yield of theoretical materials with policy-relevant implications. Globalization, when grounded empirically at both intercontinental and local community poles, and connected by verifiable linkages, with consequences observed over time, could become the touchstone conceptual frame for revitalizing applied anthropology.3

Globalization as Paradox

Within our microcosm of anthropology, we have recently sustained an upheaval that exposed a fault line along which threatening tremors had been perceived for a decade. …

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