In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2002) 153-154

[Access article in PDF]

Mutual Vulnerability

James W. Fernandez
University of Chicago


Since the emergency in our lives on September 11, I have passed through three Western polities, the United States, the United Kingdom and Spain, all identified with each other, but in different ways, with those tragic events; and in each of these places, people are all grappling with the question of what September 11 means for their nation's present and future in the new millennium. Both the United Kingdom and Spain have been confronted with home-grown terrorism for many years now but neither at such an apparently civilization-implicating scale. We see this in all the anthropologically challenging discussions about the so-called clash of civilizations. In each country, much important commentary has been forthcoming in the press and TV; and I might well devote these short comments to the commentaries (just to pick three) of Thomas Friedman of The New York Times in the United States on the mutual responsibilities of Arab and Jew in the Israel-Palestine conflict, of Jonathan Friedman in The Manchester Guardian in the United Kingdom on illusory quick solutions to the Gordian knot of the frustration with modernization in the Arab world and Jose Maria Ridao in El Pais (Madrid) on Middle Eastern millenarianism, both Arab and Israeli. It would be worthwhile to discuss critically any one of these (or all) commentators, each of them struggling to achieve a balanced [End Page 153] argument in the presence of moral sentiments and deeper senses of identity which are not perfectly attuned with their attempts at objective reasoning.

But I would like, instead, to simply return to a recurrent theme in a course on the Anthropology of Development I have been offering for some years now with my wife, Renate Fernandez, and other colleagues : "Mutual Vulnerability." We took the term from the mid-nineties work of a Chilean political economist, Jorge Nef. Mainly using United Nations indicators found in the annual Human Development Report, Nef compared "North" and "South" worlds and argued that the growing differentials in "well being," one of the main measures targeted by the HDI, was putting both worlds into an increasingly aggravated state of mutual vulnerability. These differentials were putting the world in a state that violated reason.

Nef's arguments and documentation were valuable for a course in which we tried to engage students with both moral reasoning (What is the morally acceptable difference in well being within and between polities?) and prudential reasoning (What actions must be taken to reduce the mutual vulnerability in the world produced by the great and growing disparities—as evidenced by so many indicators—between north and south?). What, we asked, are the various North-South bargains that might be made in response? (Reduction of consumption in the north with reduction of fertility in the south for example, or northern payments for southern environment conservation, unilateral debt reduction, etc.).

We often had difficulty convincing well-meaning students—even while they reasoned quite clearly about the prevailing Northern hegemony in matters of well-being or about the North's moral obligations to the South—of mutual vulnerability. They tended to think of it, prudentially I believe, as a self serving southern argument on Nef's part, with little real world relevance. Why? Was this a challenge to their (and our) feelings of national identity? Of course, if there is anything a nation hopes to guarantee for its citizens it is invulnerability. After September 11th, that skepticism about mutual vulnerability is not so easily espoused. That day of emergency, and the ensuing senses of vulnerability that it has brought us can deepen our understanding in courses like the "Anthropology of Development." It can make our moral and prudential reasoning about north-south negotiations more congruent.



Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 152-154
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.